Coalition Senators introduce anti-abortion bill

Rallying for abortion rights in Brisbane in July 2022. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

Coalition Senators Alex Antic and Matt Canavan have found it an opportune time to stir up a scare campaign about “babies being born alive” due to abortions.

The ultra-conservative politicians are insisting that some abortions result in “babies” being left “to gasp for breath until they die”. They say new laws are necessary to put an end to this practice.

The Human Rights (Children Born Alive Protection) Bill 2022 was introduced last November 22. It is the second iteration of a private members bill first introduced by George Christensen, a Christian extremist and former Coalition MP.

“In this nation, potentially hundreds of babies are born alive as a result of abortion procedures without any significant subsequent intervention,” Canavan said in his second reading speech on the bill.

The Liberal-National Senator then cited “sketchy data” suggesting 204 babies were born alive in Queensland over a 10-year period as a result of termination procedures. He added that he considers abortion to be “evil”.

The reason why the wider community is unaware that live babies are being born as a result of terminations is that it is not true.

Indeed, one only has to speak to an abortion provider to establish that this bill is part of the far right’s campaign against reproductive rights.

“The truth is complicated,” abortion provider, pro-choice activist and Socialist Alliance member Dr Kamala Emanuel told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.

“The assertion that children are being born alive as a result of the termination process is propaganda used for shock value. Like all good propaganda, it represents a wild distortion of a grain of truth.

“The truth is complicated,” Emanuel continued. “The vast majority of abortions occur before foetal viability and, of those, most are in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

“This means that most terminations occur well before there is any possibility of a baby being born capable of breathing, let alone living.”

Emanuel explained that live births can occur as a result of very late-stage abortions. Yet, these are “almost always done because of a foetal abnormality not compatible with life”, she said. These are usually pregnancies that are wanted by the pregnant woman, the doctor said.

“While it does happen, rarely, during a late medical abortion that an intact foetus is delivered alive, it will usually be in a situation where survival is not possible,” Emanuel said.

She added that patients are consulted about the risks, and attempting to save a baby in such instances is futile.

Guts of the bill

As its explanatory memorandum sets out, this bill seeks to establish a new offence for health practitioners that fail to attempt to keep breathing babies alive, while enshrining a duty for doctors to administer care.

Section 9 of the Children Born Alive Protection Bill stipulates that “the duty owed by a health practitioner to provide medical care or treatment to a child born alive as a result of a termination is no different than the duty owed to … a child born alive other than as a result of a termination”.

If passed, section 10 of the bill creates the offence of contravening the duty to provide medical care or treatment to children born alive set out in section 9. A health practitioner found guilty of this crime would be liable for a fine of up to $550,000.

Roe v Wade overturning

“I’m sure the overturning of Roe v Wade in the United States has given added confidence to anti-abortion conservatives in Australia,” Emanuel told Sydney Criminal Lawyers in response to a question regarding developments in the US. “It may be behind the impetus to introduce this bill now.”

Last June, the conservatively-stacked US Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling, which had effectively established the right to abortion at the federal level. The decision was made in relation to a case regarding Mississippi state anti-abortion measures.

The ruling also came in the wake of the passing of the Texas Heartbeat law in September 2021. The law provides that doctors who perform an abortion after a foetus’ heartbeat is detected can be sued by a member of the public for damages, with a minimum fine of US$10,000.

According to Emanuel, another likely reason for the ultraconservatives producing this bill is that, over the last few years, there has been a positive “extension and protection of abortion rights and access” at the state and territory level.

“Since progressive state/territory abortion law reform got underway in the 1960s, more restrictive abortion laws have sometimes been passed, but tend to have been overturned fairly quickly,” Emanuel added.

“The general thrust of legislative changes has been to remove restrictions.”

Drumming up conservative votes

As to why far-right politicians continue to launch attacks on reproductive rights, Emanuel said that it is an ideal way to garner the votes of conservatives as many are swayed by anti-abortion arguments.

“For those who would otherwise be troubled by other right-wing policies, the drumbeat about abortion, even when there’s no hope of anti-abortion legislation passing, makes them look like they’re doing something,” Emanuel said.

“And the propaganda shock tactic might draw more adherents and make those with reservations about abortion rights question how much those rights should entail.”

[Paul Gregoire writes for Sydney Criminal Lawyers where this article first appeared.]