A prominent Melbourne obstetrician and an Oxford bioethicist have called for a uniform Australian abortion law to allow termination at any stage in a pregnancy without danger of prosecution. Writing in the Medical Journal of Australia, Dr Lachlan de Crespigny and Dr Julian Savulescu argue that abortion as late as 34 weeks appears to be an accepted part of medical practice. With prenatal screening virtually universal, most Australian women seek an abortion if a problem exists which might lead to a serious handicap.
What prompted their article was a widely-publicised incident which took place in 2000 at Royal Women’s Hospital and which is still being investigated by the hospital. A team of doctors performed an abortion on a woman who was 32 weeks pregnant with a child who was a dwarf. When this became public, the idea of a late abortion and the notion that dwarves are not fit to live sparked a public outcry and criticism from Federal Parliament. Investigations by the coroner and the police fizzled out, but only after months of debate and uncertainty. Drs de Crespigny and Savulescu say that this caused immense harm to all concerned, including the staff, “whose careers were damaged and whose personal lives were stressed by the events”. Legal certainty is needed, they conclude, to avoid similar imbroglios.
Taking a different view of the case, Melbourne bioethicist Dr Nick Tonti-Filippini focuses on the viability of the foetus. He observes that the argument for late abortion assumes that autonomy is a stronger value than life itself. At 32 weeks, a foetus can easily survive and the decision to kill it is “completely indistinguishable from a doctor destroying one of the many children of similar gestation age, and younger, in a neonatal intensive care unit.”
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