Holmes

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HUMAN RIGHTS ANOTHER
LOOK AT ABORTION
Beryl Holmes
President (1987-92)
Children by Choice Association, QLD

ACCORDING TO THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION SOMEWHERE between a quarter and half a million women die every year from illegal abortion (Short 1991). This is an 'epidemic' of gigantic proportions. Usually great efforts are made to curb tragic and unnecessary deaths, such as those from smallpox, malaria and AIDS. It is surprising then that almost nothing has been done about this shocking worldwide tragedy of the deaths of so many women from backyard abortion. While the deaths from epidemics are accidentally caused, these deaths from abortion result from government policies.

This is in itself a statement about the current status of women around the world. If the reasons abortion laws came into being could be established, it might explain why governments currently act, or do not act, in the way they do. Feminists proclaim that the history of patriarchal societies and anti-feminist cultures has been about power and control in the family, and that abortion is part of this story. Others point out that the need to control women's sexuality is because men do not take responsibility for theirs.

Research into the history of abortion therefore results in somewhat confused and different views in relation to community use, acceptance, morality and the legality of abortion practice.
The Church
Over the last two centuries, with the centralisation of power in the Catholic church, various ideas on abortion have been standardised into a single inflexible position, that is, that the church is convinced all abortion is wrong (Pius IX Aclae Santae Sedis 5298, Conscience 1991.)

The limited historical records suggest that the legal position on abortion has been uncertain. There are some records indicating that abortion was considered (by those in authority) a punishable offence, yet the practice appears to have been commonplace. Keown (1988) cites cases (1327, 1348, 1505, 1602, 1732, 1755) and a number of treatises asserting that abortion was punishable well before the first statutory publication of the offence in 1803 (Keown 1988, pp. 4-10). 'The Act of 1623 reversed common law presumption of stillbirth and provided that, if a woman concealed the

Women and the Law

death of her illegitimate issue so that it might not be known whether it had been born alive, she should suffer death for murder unless she could prove stillbirth' (Keown 1988, p. 6). This adds emphasis to the suggestion that it is the sinful sex that is the crime.

In 1803, Lord Ellenborough's Act (England) restricting abortion was introduced. Keown says: 'There has as yet been no wholly satisfactory explanation of the restriction of the abortion law by this Act, which is perhaps understandable in view of the apparent absence of any popular or religious outcry over abortion' before it was passed and that there are 'three possible reasons for its enactment, namely: clarification of the law; perception of abortion as a social problem; and criticism by regular medical practitioners of the significance attached to quickening' (the time when the woman first feels movement of the foetus). The penalty was very severe. 'Attempted abortion after quickening was, between 1803 and 1837, punishable by death. So too was any felonious attempt which resulted in the woman's death. . . . It is suggested that the gradual extension of the law and its persistent severity can be seen not only as a reflection of the harshness of the contemporary criminal code as a whole but also as a response to proposals for reform, advanced by the emerging medical profession' (Keown 1988, p. 12, 25, 27).

The Medical Profession
Many women, particularly late twentieth-century feminists, have been critical of the (mainly male) medical profession, especially in the manner in which they have taken over women's traditional role in managing reproductive and birthing practices. These next findings are...
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