It hasn’t been a great year for the cause of abortion law liberalisation, with reform bills foundering in the two states where abortion remains on the books as a criminal offence.
First came Queensland, where a bill to remove it from the criminal code was put on the backburner in February after the Liberal National Party opposition resolved to vote against it, rather than allow a conscience vote as Labor was doing.
Then last week, the New South Wales Legislative Council voted down a Greens-sponsored bill that would have decriminalised abortion, compelled medical practitioners to refer patients elsewhere if they had a conscientious objection, and established exclusion zones around clinics to exclude protesters.
The prospective impact of these proposals should not be overstated — legal precedents ensure that abortion is lawful in these states where a doctor considers it necessary to preserve a woman’s physical or mental health, which represents a rather low hurdle in practice.
Nor was the New South Wales bill defeated in a spirit of pro-life absolutism, with speakers against it (and even some in favour) mostly critical of the way the Greens had gone about it.
Nonetheless, the vote followed the contours of liberal and conservative opinion in the chamber, with opponents including the two members of Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party: David Clarke, the once-formidable leader of the Liberal Party’s hard-right faction; and, on the Labor side, Greg Donnelly, a former official of the socially conservative Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association.
It also followed the re-introduction by Fred Nile of “Zoe’s law”, a contentious bill to grant legal rights to foetuses that made it through the lower house on a conscience vote in the previous term of Parliament, before the government allowed it to die on the vine rather than progressing it through the upper house.
While not targeting abortion, this bill is fiercely opposed by pro-choice groups, who view it as the thin end of the wedge.
To the extent that abortion’s technical status as a criminal offence remains, it’s clearly the case that the law is running behind public opinion.
This is illustrated by the chart below, showing responses to a survey question on abortion featured in the Australian Election Study series, which the Australian National University has conducted after each federal election over the past three decades.
Support for an outright pro-life position has always been limited to the ideological margins, while backing for abortion on demand has grown steadily at the expense of the view that special circumstances should be required.
After last year’s election, 67% indicated support for abortion on demand, compared with 30% for special circumstances and only 4% for an outright ban (by way of comparison, a similar survey in the United States recently had the respective numbers at 46%, 41% and 13% overall, and 26%, 53% and 21% among Republicans).
This is partly reflected by the long-term decline in religious observance, with the proportion of respondents who attended services at least once a month falling from 23% in 1990 to 17% last year.
But whereas the religiously observant have been fairly stable in their conservatism over that time, the steadily increasing share of the population that attends services less than once a month has grown more liberal, with support for abortion on demand increasing from 61% to 75%.
Of still greater interest is a pattern over the past decade in which the observant have grown more pronounced in their identification with the Coalition rather than Labor, with the gap reaching a new peak of 52% to 25% in the 2016 survey.
This has been reflected in the increasing assertiveness of religious conservatives at the grassroots level of the Liberal Party in recent years, and the resulting growth of their influence in party preselections.
It also suggests social conservatives may chalk up more legislative victories in years to come, or, at the very least, hold back the seemingly inexorable liberalising tide of public opinion.