George Christensen (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

A campaign about saving children “born alive” after abortions is superficially heroic sounding, but fundamentally sneaky and misleading — Australia’s anti-abortion activists have predictably plagiarised their counterparts in the United States.

Under former president Donald Trump, attacks on women’s reproductive rights escalated in the US and beyond. Post-Trump, the anti-choice mob are working hard on a new angle: abortion “survivors”.

It’s emotive propaganda from the right-to-lifers, from FamilyVoice to Cherish Life to the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL).

Now the (soon to be outgoing) Queensland LNP Member for Dawson, George Christensen, credits the ACL’s Lyle Shelton with inspiring a bill. He’s pushing for laws that would force doctors to try to save the lives of babies after abortion procedures. “Even if that is a fruitless exercise,” he said.

He points to Queensland Health guidelines that advise doctors to “not provide life sustaining treatment (e.g. gastric tubes, IV lines, oxygen therapy)” if a baby is still alive after a termination.

This is, obviously, a very complicated and disturbing topic. And it’s that very complexity that allows the right-to-lifers to slide in with their simplistic moralising.

“These babies are left to gasp for breath until they die,” Christensen writes, inventing a cruel world where doctors would ever do such a thing and women would consent to it being done.

Marie Stopes Australia’s deputy medical director Dr Catriona Melville said in Guardian Australia that the push to fine doctors $440,000 if they let a foetus die is a total furphy, because an injection used in clinics means there would be no signs of life.

“It’s really nonsensical,” she said. “He’s proposing creating policy for a circumstance that by the nature of the procedure wouldn’t occur. It’s making noise without benefiting anybody involved in the process.”

Cate Grindlay, Marie Stopes Australia’s executive director of nursing and clinical services, says the bill is based on a myth that “describes a clinical situation that doesn’t exist”.

“The reason we must stop the bill is that it’s based on inaccurate information and it demonstrates a very poor understanding of sexual and reproductive healthcare,” she said. “It would simply create anti-choice debate in Parliament that’s not in the interests of safe and accessible healthcare.

“It’s a myth. He’s tabling a bill about a myth. We’ve got rigorous protocols for all the clinical procedures we provide in our clinics. [It] isn’t necessary because it describes a clinical situation that doesn’t exist.”

The anti-abortion movement has seized on a 2016 report that there were 27 live births after late-term abortions in Queensland (in hospitals, not clinics). They have liberated that statistic from the context and blithely ignored the science of what happened.

As experts explained at the time, such procedures were performed if the foetus had lethal or significant abnormalities or if a birth posed a risk to the mother. Doctors would have predicted the foetus had zero chance of survival.

Women are offered medication to end the life before delivery, but in some cases the babies are delivered alive for medical or personal reasons then given palliative care. SA Health points out that, for example, a woman might be given the opportunity to hold the baby as it dies.

So in rare late-term abortions — which can be performed only if there is serious risk to mother or foetus — sometimes hospitals and pregnant women have to make a grim and difficult decision about euthanising a foetus in the womb, or delivering it into palliative care.

The anti-abortionists’ grasp of the procedure is tenuous, their end-game palpable, and their language febrile.

But the really heinous hogswallop here is the conspicuously absent counterfactual. Imagine forcing doctors to resuscitate a baby with lethal abnormalities. Imagine putting into law something that would make them insert tubes in a tiny throat, IV lines in a tiny vein, in vain.

Imagine putting women, their families, and medical practitioners through that pain, while conceding it could be a “fruitless exercise”.

Marie Stopes Australia offers pregnancy counselling support here.

Peter Fray

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