If a baby survives a late-term abortion and makes it into the world alive, it will be legal in NSW to leave that baby to die on the operating table – if the State Government’s abortion bill makes it through the Upper House of Parliament in its current form.
Update: The NSW Upper House will begin debate on the legislation from Tuesday, September 17. Follow the webcast on the NSW Parliament website.
That’s one of the more sobering details of the Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill that looks to decriminalise abortion in NSW, and was passed by a majority of 59 to 31 in the NSW Parliament’s Lower House late last night.
During three days of intense debate, the NSW Minister for Women Tanya Davies introduced one of several proposed amendments, calling for babies’ lives to be protected if a pregnancy is terminated at 20 weeks or later.
Ms Davies wanted to see “every effort [to be] made to deliver the foetus alive”, and “if a live child is born, the child must be given the same neonatal care as would be given to any other child born at the same stage of pregnancy and in the same medical condition.”
The amendment was knocked back by a majority, though. This means that a baby inadvertently delivered alive could be left to die in one hospital ward—while doctors fight to save a premature baby of the same age, in the next. In this hypothetical scenario, the only difference between the two babies may be their parents’ willingness to raise a child.
Babies Born Alive After a Abortion: More Common Than People Realise
The live birth of a child after an attempted late-term abortion is not a rare circumstance.
The most recent statistics from Victoria show that out of 310 late-term terminations performed in that state in 2016, there were 33 babies born alive and left to die from prematurity – representing more than 10 per cent of all late-term abortions. And a large percentage of those (40 per cent) were conducted for psychosocial, not medical, reasons.
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In Queensland, more than 200 babies survived abortions between 2005 and 2015 according to an ABC report. And in keeping with the parents’ original wishes, all were left to die.
For NSW, the statistics are unknown. That’s because record-keeping in relation to abortions is not required by law in this state – an issue not addressed by the new legislation.
Dr Megan Best (pictured), a bioethicist, government advisor and senior lecturer in health ethics at Sydney and Notre Dame universities, told Hope 103.2 that she knows abortion clinic workers who’ve been present when an aborted baby has survived.
“These are cases where babies have started crying after being born, they’re definitely alive, and they’re left to die,” she said. “Nothing is done to help them. I’ve spoken to nurses who held the baby until the baby died. It’s certainly a very distressing experience for them. There are also several people who have survived abortion procedures and lived to tell their stories.
“So if you look for instructions on how to perform an abortion, it’s recommended that a lethal injection be given before the procedure – to make sure they don’t survive.”
Dr Best explained that babies can survive a late-term abortion because the process is quite similar to an induced birth—except that gruesome measures can be taken: “Sometimes they have to cut up the baby to get it out”.
“I’ve spoken to nurses who held the baby until the baby died. It’s certainly a very distressing experience for them.”
She said that euphemistic language makes many people ignorant of the harsh nature of an abortion.
“I do believe that some people aren’t aware of what happens,” she said. “Because of the way we talk about the ‘procedure’ and the ‘remains’, we don’t talk as if it’s a human being involved—so we can pretend its not a human being.”
Not Only About Women’s Rights
Leading up to this week’s debate, Dr Best acted as a scientific advisor to members of parliament on the Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill and its amendments. She believes in the intrinsic value of life, and finds it hard to understand why more MPs didn’t support the protection of a living baby outside the womb.
“Now there is no protection if a baby is born alive,” she said. “There’s no-one who thinks it’s not a human being. I would’ve thought that the right to have an abortion can co-exist with the right of a viable foetus outside the womb to be protected. This bill makes it safer for women than it was. I don’t know why we can’t make it safer for viable babies at the same time.”
She added that the survival rate of babies after terminations proves it is not only a matter of womens’ rights.
“Some argue that women should be allowed an abortion to full term for any reason, because it’s ‘their body’,” she said. “But due to the fact [an aborted] child can be born and survive on its own, it’s obviously not their body.”
Doctors who Conscientiously Object Will be Forced to Refer Patients On
Dr Best said she was especially disturbed that doctors’ right to conscientious objection has not been better protected in the new legislation. Now if a doctor objects to the idea of abortion, they would be required – if the law is passed – to refer a patient on to someone else willing to perform the procedure.
She said she finds this “particularly offensive”.
“Politicians were given the right to a conscience vote—and then used it to remove the doctor’s right to use their conscience!”
“Any move to reduce a doctor’s right to conscientious objection [is troubling],” she said. “We’ve protected mothers from coercion – but not doctors. It’s interesting that politicians were given the right to a conscience vote—and then used it to remove the doctor’s right to use their conscience!”
According to the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA), doctors have a right to conscientious objection, as long as they don’t create a barrier for a patient wanting to access a certain type of treatment. But the new legislation would reduce their freedom.
“For some doctors, they feel like if they refer a patient for an abortion, they’re complicit,” Dr Best said. “And I believe if it’s against someone’s conscience, they shouldn’t be put in that position. It’s the thin of the wedge. If it happens for this, it can happen in other cases too.”
A “Better Bill” Than When it Began
Dr Best said that despite her concerns about the legislation, some of the successful amendments have made it a “better bill than when it first started”.
“I think the process is a lot safer for women than it would have been,” she said. “They are now required to give informed consent. The procedure, unless an emergency, if it’s late term, has to be done by a specialist. And late term abortions need to be performed in an approved public health facility, and counselling offered to those involved.
“Counselling for fathers was knocked back, though.”
Under the proposed law parental consent will not be required when a young teenager (under 16) seeks an abortion; and an amendment seeking to ban the sale of foetal tissue was not successful.
A Dangerous Trend for the Vulnerable
Abortion is already legal in NSW for pregnancies where there is a serious risk to a woman’s physical or mental health. Australian pro-life group Emily’s voice explains that “doctors can already take into account social and financial circumstances” when choosing to green-light an abortion at up to 20 weeks.
The new legislation, however, would mean later term abortions can include social circumstances too – such as financial or career reasons, or pressure from a partner or family member.
Dr Best added that disability is already a common reason for abortion. She said it’s a trend that devalues life: “Its definitely looking at the value of someone depending on how they can contribute to society, or how valuable they are to someone else, rather than giving them intrinsic value.”
The more life is devalued, she believes, the wider the door opens for the weak to be discarded: “We know that in Holland, disabled babies are allowed to die, under their euthanasia legislation.”
The bill will now go to the Upper House, with an inquiry scheduled for next week. Submissions for the inquiry close at 5pm on Tuesday, August 13th. The Legislative Council is then expected to vote on the bill in the week starting August 19.
The Sydney Catholic Archdiocese and Right To Life have launched a petition calling on the Upper House to reject the legislation, while Federal MP Barnaby Joyce is promoting a “Petition to Support Life” calling for a NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into the legislation.
- Read More: The NSW Bill to Decriminalise Abortion: Explained
- Dr Megan Best is Sydney Health Ethics Clinical Senior Lecturer at Sydney University, and a senior lecturer at Notre Dame University’s Institute for Ethics and Society.