Arrest of Abortion Doctors Puts Australia Laws on Spot

Widely ignored, ban on abortions open to debate after arrests last month. New law is called for.

Australia's most isolated state capital is attracting attention as it grapples with the question of abortion.

Both sides of the debate are watching events unfolding in the predominantly conservative city of Perth, Western Australia, viewing them as a test case for how the rest of Australia may proceed on the question.

Abortion on demand is technically a criminal offense in Australia. But legal complexity and liberal court rulings in different parts of the country have led to general nonenforcement of the laws. Some 80,000 Australians - about 50 percent of all pregnant woman - have abortions each year, according to the Association for the Legal Right to Abortion.

But an ongoing court case involving two Perth doctors has had a chilling effect on women seeking abortions in the state, and on those who carry out the procedure.

Last month, doctors Victor Chan and Hoh Peng Lee were charged for performing an abortion in 1996. The doctors are the first in almost 30 years to be accused of violating Western Australia's abortion law, which permits the procedure only to save the life of the mother. The judge has yet to determine if there is enough evidence to proceed to trial.

Drs. Chan and Lee have returned to work and it is business as usual for Perth's two abortion clinics, which have operated openly here for about 25 years. Western Australian doctors had assumed they were safe to terminate pregnancies, in accordance with liberal court rulings in other parts of Australia.

Why state prosecutors moved to enforce a 19th-century abortion law when they have turned a blind eye to it on numerous occasions may be due to the unusual circumstances surrounding the case.

How arrest came about

It's alleged that in November 1996, Chan and Lee performed an abortion on a Maori woman who then kept the fetus in her refrigerator, intending to take it to New Zealand for burial, following a Maori custom.

Abortion rights advocates say word of the situation reached a low-level police officer with anti-abortion views. They say the officer arrested the doctors because he was unfamiliar with the widespread toleration toward abortion, later embarrassing senior police.

The case has since sparked efforts that could change how Australia handles the abortion issue. The state's strong pro-choice faction has called for new laws expanding women's rights to safe and legal abortions. "It's quite clear from the community that they want it," says Western Australian lawmaker Cheryl Davenport, referring to a state opinion poll showing that 82 percent of respondents support legalized abortion.

A bill to allow abortion

Ms. Davenport, a long-standing pro-choice campaigner from the leftist Labor Party, has drafted a bill that would effectively allow doctors to terminate a pregnancy at the woman's request. If passed, it will become Australia's most liberal law on abortion.

Many other state politicians, previously content to allow the abortion law to remain unenforced, have felt pressed to enter the controversy after two women seriously injured themselves when attempting to self-abort in the past month. Affected by the publicity surrounding the doctors' arrests, the women believed they were unable to have a clinic abortion.

For the anti-abortion side, the debate presents an opportunity to campaign for further restrictions to abortion access. One of Perth's Roman Catholic bishops, Robert Healy, says his church wants to see abortion made illegal under all circumstances, and police and the courts need to consistently enforce current laws.

On the eve of parliamentary debate on the Davenport bill, a message from Pope John Paul II warned Western Australians that "a society which permits the killing of the weak and defenseless, especially a society which kills its own children, has no real future."

For many in the medical profession, the arrests of Chan and Lee have revealed the risks they face when performing an abortion. Many health professionals have threatened to withhold abortion services if the Davenport bill is not passed. "Doctors are saying that we're not prepared to work under these sorts of conditions again," says Australian Medical Association state president Scott Blackwell. Many other doctors have united to oppose the bill, however, on the basis that it is morally wrong to kill a human life.

But even if state lawmakers pass measures to satisfy concerns over the abortion question, debate over difficult ethical issues will not subside for long in peaceful Perth. A bill seeking to allow euthanasia will soon be introduced in the state's parliament.

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