Politics: Decriminalising Abortion in Victoria – time to bother some politicians!

So, here in Victoria we are currently trying to decriminalise abortion. And about time too – we’ve had a silly criminal law on the books that nobody has been prosecuted under for over 20 years, so it’s certainly time we got sensible about it.

Anyway, it’s before the Upper House at the moment, having barely passed the lower house, so now is a good opportunity to email your favourite member of parliament about it.

My personal irritant is people who keep trying to amend it to make things harder or more embarrassing or require ‘anonymous review panels’ for abortions, or, in particular, bring forward the gestational time at which abortion is legal. Having trained as a genetic counsellor, this particularly gets my goat, as the people most affected by this law would be women who either have serious medical issues themselves or who have just had a very nasty prenatal diagnosis.

Here’s the letter I’m sending to basically everyone in parliament this week.

To my representative / Dear MP / To the Honorable Member,

I write to express my support for the decriminalisation of abortion in Victoria, without further amendments. Of particular concern to me, is the ability for women to terminate a pregnancy up to the age of 24 weeks.

My reasons for supporting this bill, and particularly for decriminalising abortion at such a late stage of pregnancy, are many, but a key reason is that by decreasing the gestational age of the pregnancy at which it is legal to terminate a pregnancy, you may actually prevent women from taking the time they need to make a very difficult and wrenching decision about a pregnancy that is at high medical risk, or where the child is likely to be severely disabled. Having trained as a genetic counsellor, I am deeply committed to ensuring women who are pregnant and affected by a genetic condition (their own or the child’s) have good access to the counselling and information they require to make a decision they can live with.

At present, most women in Australia are screened in the first trimester for Down’s Syndrome and several other, less common, genetic conditions. However, this screening (results for which are generally delivered just after the end of the first trimester) only provides a risk factor, not a definite diagnosis. If a woman is at high risk and wants to learn more, she must then undergo amniocentesis to determine whether the child does, in fact, have a chromosomal abnormality, or other specific genetic condition. This cannot generally be done immediately, and it then takes two more weeks to culture the cells sufficiently to do a karyotype and view the chromosomes. In general, then, the earliest a woman could possibly learn that her child definitely suffers from a genetic condition is around 18 weeks. Usually it is later. And by this point, termination of pregnancy involves going through labor.

You can imagine that this is not something that most women would contemplate lightly.

Very often, the screening test shows nothing. In this case, the first sign a woman may have that there is something wrong with her baby is at the 20-week scan. Further tests may then be required. It may well be more weeks before she has a different answer to the question of what condition the baby may have, and what the prognosis might be. She would certainly be getting counselling at this point, and she might well be trying to get in contact with parents of other children with similar conditions.

All of this takes time. All of this brings her closer to the 24-week cut-off, after which point she has to go through the further harrowing time of convincing the doctors that she should be allowed to end the pregnancy.

Again, by this time, she is probably showing. She can probably feel the child inside her. She is not making this decision lightly.

By bringing the cut-off forward, you are making it harder for that very small percentage of women who do choose to terminate late in pregnancy – a group that is largely composed of women terminating for medical reasons or fetal abnormality. Their decision is a difficult one, and they should be allowed the time and space to reach it in their own time, without worrying about beating a deadline. The effect of bringing this deadline forward may well be to force women to make a decision faster than is right for them – and may result in them terminating a pregnancy that they might have kept, had they had the opportunity to learn more about their child’s condition.

On a purely personal level, I am absolutely pro-choice. I don’t believe that I can know what burden is too much for another woman to bear – and I don’t believe that anyone else knows this either. But even were I not pro-choice, I would have to tell you this – in making restrictions late in pregnancy you are picking on the wrong group of women. In decreasing the gestation time at which abortion is legal, you are primarily affecting women with wanted pregnancies, who are in very heartbreaking situations.

If you want to reduce these late-term abortions, do something about the fact that care for children with severe physical or mental disability or both is so limited, so expensive, so hard to access. Provide funding for support groups. Assist people in accessing care in the home for sick children. Come up with solutions for people who are worried about disabled children reaching adulthood and having nowhere to go when their parents die. In short – make this a society where having a child with a disability is not such a burden on individuals and families that women who want children, and who might even be willing to take on the care and love of a child with a disability, are supported financially, socially, emotionally so that they are able to do so.

And while you’re at it, fund medical research into early prenatal diagnosis and into therapy and cures for these conditions.

I doubt you will put an end to all late-term abortions, but you will certainly reduce them, and this can only benefit our society.

Thank you for reading this.

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