Sunday, October 12, 2008

A new law

This past week has seen the passage of a new law through the Victorian parliament - the Abortion Law Reform Bill 2008. In responding to this new law, I hope to present a brief summary of how I believe the decision to terminate the life of an unborn child impacts of our lives, and on our society. I do believe there is another higher law, that of God the creator and sustainer of life, to which we are all answerable. This principle is often referred to as the sanctity of human life.

Abortion has been available through medical referral in Victoria for the past 40 years or so. The 'new' law takes abortion out of the criminal code.

Most terminations of pregnancy are carried out prior to 22 weeks' gestation, and are performed on the grounds that the mother's physical or mental health would be compromised by continuing the pregnancy.

A case that received a great deal of publicity in 2000 and subsequently, when a group of doctors at a Melbourne public hospital performed a termination of pregnancy at 31 weeks for a baby with dwarfism has been, I believe, a driver for the new legislation. This case is discussed in a 2004 MJA article, Abortion: time to clarify Australia's confusing laws.

My purpose in writing this blog is to state that I am shocked and disturbed by our society's huge reliance on abortion. The rate quoted in the abovementioned article is "more than one for every three livebirths. Less than 2% of these abortions are for fetal abnormality." Most of the terminations of pregnancy are for social reasons.

In the 40-year period since abortion became not only legal but more commonplace, there has been a parallel loss of ability with normal birth. Women choose regional anaesthesia, taking away their ability to feel the passage of the baby through their highly sensitive birth canals. Women are ending up on the operating table for caesarean surgery at an alarming rate. The highest rates of interventions in birth occur not among the unhealthy, low socio-economic groups, but among healthy, well educated women with private health insurance, booked at private maternity hospitals.

Why is this so?

In recent generations women have been told we have an absolute right of control over our bodies, and the baby we carry. Modern technology has 'forced' us to make decisions about prenatal screening, and sometimes to consider terminating the pregnancy. We move quickly along the production line, with an early pregnancy blood test and ultrasound, giving risk ratios that predict the likelihood of Down Syndrome. If the risk is considered too high, we have to decide whether or not to have an amniocentesis. Then at 18 weeks or so we have the 'anomaly' ultrasound scan, checking all the organs and measuring the parts. Another decision point has been reached. Some women are shocked at this time to be told of 'ecogenic foci' or 'soft markers' for Down Syndrome. Words that they have never before encountered suddenly become a cruel refrain that plays over and over in their minds. "Is my baby alright?" Yet this deeply distressing decision process accounts for only a tiny minority of abortions. Most abortions are for babies who are conceived at a time that is inconvenient in the mother's life.

Our bodies are wonderfully made. The ability to conceive and give birth to our children is among the most life-affirming, intimate acts that we will experience. But something so precious is also very easily damaged.

One of the reasons some women are unable to tolerate the pain of even normal birth is the memory of previous sexual or reproductive experiences. This memory is deeply stored, and may even be hidden for many years. When labour is progressing the memory surfaces, and may overwhelm the mother, adding to her pain and distress.

I believe the progressive increase in surgical births - an indicator of women's inability to give birth safely under natural processes - is strongly linked to our society's teaching that women can terminate pregnancies that they don't want.

Although I believe there is a greater principle of sanctity of human life, I do believe the laws of the land need to be carefully written to provide for legal abortion. Even with the new law, abortion carries definite physical risks to the mother; infection and haemorrhage being the main ones. The alternative of backyard, septic abortions, is too terrible to allow.

When I have the opportunity to counsel a woman about prenatal screening, or about the possible detection of abnormalities in their babies, I try to encourage them to face the situation carefully and honestly. We cannot guarantee a 'normal' or 'healthy' child - whatever those words may mean. Life is not about perfection. A child is not a commodity - an accessory for the girl who has everything. Some of the most tragic disabilities that parents face as their children grow are conditions that cannot be detected prenatally.

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