Abortion: the silent majority

Anne O'Rourke, 23 June 2008

It has been claimed by some religious groups that the Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC) has ignored the views of the majority in its Final Report on the Law of Abortion. Indeed letters in The Age (June 3, 2008) by Nicholas Tonti-Filippini and Teresa Martin attack the VLRC for failing to reflect their views in the report.

There appears to be a misguided belief that if the VLRC receives 519 submissions 80 per cent of which argue against the decriminalisation of abortion, (many of which are one page proforma submissions), then that should be reflected in the recommendations of the report. However, the point of the inquiry is not to accept uncritically the views of a very small but organised vocal minority and disregard the broader society’s views.

The religious right often claim to represent the silent majority. Every legitimate survey or research suggests they do not. The VLRC commissioned Professor David Studdert from the University of Melbourne to review the various surveys on abortion carried out since 2000.

Professor Studdert examined the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (AuSSA), the Australian Election Study (AES) survey, the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute (SCBI) survey, the Australian Federation of Right to Life Associations (AFRTLA) survey and Marie Stopes International (MSI) survey. Professor Studdert examines both the strengths and weaknesses of these surveys. His results make for interesting reading.

Studdert concludes that while all have weaknesses the academic surveys (AuSSA and AES) present the strongest estimates of what Australians think of abortions. These surveys conducted from 2003 to 2005 suggest that 80 per cent of Australians support a woman’s right to choose. It is this 80 per cent that reflect society’s views not the 80 per cent of mostly pro-forma submissions to the inquiry.

In relation to the SCBI survey he found that the questions were vaguely worded often commencing with a negative tone, for example:

With approximately 90,000 abortions in Australia each year, some people we have spoken to have the opinion that there are too many abortions in Australia at present and it would be a good thing if the number of abortions was reduced. Do you agree or disagree with that point of view?

Professor Studdert referred to this wording as a non-neutral inquiry which can affect the responses to the question.

Similar concerns about the wording design or the negatively loaded questions also arose about the AFRTLA survey. Despite these weaknesses, he found that the SCBI and the AFRTLA surveys generally supported the main messages of the academic surveys. That is, even the surveys conducted by religious organisations showed that a majority of the public, the true silent majority, support a woman’s right to choose.

Even within religious groupings survey after survey demonstrates that the majority support the right to choose. The AuSSA 2003 survey found that 77 per cent of respondents who held religious views believe in the right to choose. Of the 1,000 Catholics surveyed 72 per cent favoured choice. Evangelical groups held more restrictive views but even among this group 53 per cent were pro-choice.

Though this may come as a surprise, the religious right do not represent the majority religious view on abortion. There are many Christian denominations and religious groups, particularly in the United States, that do not believe that the Bible condemns abortion or that abortion should be illegal. There is a website for Catholics for Free Choice which discusses Catholicism and abortion and is prochoice. Two Catholic theologians, Daniel Dombrowski and Robert Deltete, in their book A Brief, Liberal, Catholic Defense of Abortion, written in 2000, also support the right to choose.

The view that a fetus is a human being from conception, and consequently that abortion is wrong, is very new in history, even in Catholic history. It was not until the late 1800s that the Catholic Church instituted the belief that the embryo acquires a soul at conception. Before that, there was no general consensus on abortion. Many of the church fathers, such as St Augustine and St Jerome, believed that the soul could not enter the body of an unformed fetus thus abortion was not considered wrong until “ensoulment” occurred.

The VLRC does not base its reports solely on the submissions it receives. While it considers the opinions given in submissions it must base its findings on facts. This means on objective academic surveys, on medical facts recognised by peak medical associations and on legal opinion, not on fanciful medical syndromes that are not recognised by medical science.

The VLRC has listened to the broad community. It also listened to the small vocal minority. It disregarded some of those views based on flawed methodology and lack of evidence. The VLRC is to be congratulated for producing a comprehensive and accessible report that provides politicians with cogent reasons for reforming the law. And the most cogent reasons support the simplest model.