Australia’s support for abortion has come under a spotlight following the recent roll back of Roe vs Wade in the US, but what do we really think about the controversial procedure?
Australian adults have voiced strong support for abortion, well above the global average, according new Ipsos global survey.
Almost three quarters of Australians – or 74 per cent – say abortion should be legal for any woman in the first six weeks of a pregnancy, compared to the global average of 62 per cent, while 59 per cent say it should be legal for any woman in the first 14 weeks, compared to the global average of 45 per cent.
But only 39 per cent of us also believe the procedure should be readily available for any woman in the first 20 weeks, compared to a global average of 27 per cent.
The survey, which involved 20,523 adults under the age of 75 from 27 countries, recorded the views of 1,000 people per country between June 24 and July 8 this year – immediately after the US Supreme Court’s decision.
In countries allowing abortion on request, the most common gestational limit is 12 weeks, or the first trimester, but abortion is often permitted under a range of circumstances after this limit has expired.
However, Australia has some of the most lenient abortion laws in the world, with states like Victoria pushing the accessibility period out to 24 weeks or just before the final trimester.
The Northern Territory has also recently changed its laws to extend the period to match Victoria’s.
In South Australia, women can access abortions up to 23 weeks, in NSW and Queensland 22 weeks, while in Western Australia women can access the procedure up to 20 weeks.
Tasmania has the tightest abortion laws, with women able to access the procedure within the first 16 weeks of pregnancy.
However, late term abortions, which are considered past 24 weeks, are still legal in some circumstances, with the approval of more than one doctor.
While the survey shows a lack of support for abortions between 14 and 20 weeks, Women’s Health Victoria 1800 My Options Manager, Carolyn Mogharbel, said there “are many reasons for ensuring that abortions are accessible after 12 weeks”.
“Some people don’t know they’re pregnant until this point in time, while some require abortion for foetal abnormality or other health or social reasons,” she said.
Ms Mogharbel said state and federal governments should be making abortion and other sexual and reproductive health services “as accessible as possible”.
“Abortion care should be freely available through public hospitals, should be supported via Medicare in primary care through general practice, and should be culturally safe and appropriate for all Australians,” she said.
But not everyone agrees.
Associate Professor in Law Dr Joanna Howe, who has been fighting to change Australia’s abortion laws, has called them “extreme”, arguing most Australians would be “appalled by the broad legality of late-term abortion”.
“The Ipsos survey suggests that most Australians would like to see legislative protection for the human rights of babies who are capable of living outside the womb … and a distinct lack of support for Australia’s extreme abortion laws which allow abortion up to birth,” Ms Howe said.
“Yet in Australia, abortion is now legal up to birth in every state and territory for an extremely broad range of reasons.
“I think most Australians would say we have gone way too far on this question of abortion.”
Ms Howe believes late-term abortion – which sometimes involve babies who are capable of living outside the mother – is the “human rights issue of our generation”.
Since Victoria legalised abortion up to birth in 2009, there have been 4186 babies who have been aborted late-term, Ms Howe reported.
Of the late-term abortions, which were performed due to psychosocial reasons or suspected or confirmed congenital abnormalities, 438 were recorded as neonatal deaths – post-birth deaths.
Ms Howe said while some will argue late-term abortion only happens if the baby is going to die anyway, “this is also patently false”.
“For example, in 2011 in Victoria, a 37-week, full-term, physically healthy baby with a physically healthy mother had her life ended through abortion,” she said.
While it is difficult to estimate the abortion rate in Australia, it is estimated about 90,000 abortions are performed each year, the majority within the first 12 weeks.
Ms Howe said we need “rigorous collection of abortion statistics across every jurisdiction in Australia” adding that only a few jurisdictions collect these statistics, such as Victoria and South Australia.
“We need to know how many abortions take place each year, at what gestation, for what reason and by what method,” she argued.
“This information should not be concealed from the public.”
Ms Mogharbel said while abortion statistics are recorded in Victoria, “the mechanisms to record surgical abortion services aren’t embedded in Australian healthcare systems”.
She agreed with Ms Howe that the data should be recorded.
Both Ms Mogharbel and Ms Howe are also both in agreement with the majority of Australians – 83 per cent according to the Ipsos survey – who support any medical interventions in an emergency situation necessary to save a pregnant woman’s life.
Unsurprisingly, eight in 10 Australians said abortions should be accessible for pregnancies which are a result of a rape, compared to the global average of 76 per cent.
Australians are also more welcoming of abortions being accessible in cases where babies are at risk of having severe disabilities or health problems, a total of 73 per cent of Australians supporting the measure compared to 67 per cent globally.
Of the 27 countries surveyed, Sweden, Belgium, France, and the Netherlands were the biggest supporters of abortion, while only four countries – Peru, India, Malaysia, and Colombia – were mainly opposed.
On average globally, three in 10 say it should be legal in all cases, while just 10 per cent think that it should be illegal in all cases.