Right must not use abortion debate as a political tool

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Kenneth Hayne, who so ably handled the royal commission into abuse in the financial services industry, recently deplored the dominance of vested interests in politics and the obsession with destroying opponents at all costs.

“Political rhetoric now resorts to the language of war, seeking to portray opposing views as presenting existential threats to society as we now know it,” Mr Hayne said.

That sounds very much like the Liberal Party’s kamikaze response to the debate on the abortion bill now making its way through the NSW Parliament.

It is a sensitive issue, to be sure, which splits the party down the middle. Indeed, in the lower house, 19 of the 35 Liberal MPs opposed the bill. The tension between religious beliefs and a woman's right to choose is one of the most intractable issues in politics.

But the debate on what is a non-partisan conscience bill with 15 co-sponsors from different parties has spun out of control. Even though Premier Gladys Berejiklian has not taken a lead on the bill, the right-wing of her party is ropeable that she even allowed it to be brought on and voted in favour.

In the back rooms of Macquarie Street, right-wing factional members are  mischievously spreading rumours about a challenge to Ms Berejiklian although most admit it is highly unlikely.

Police Minister David Elliott has accused Transport Minister Andrew Constance of “maladministration” in allowing the bill to be put. Mr Constance, from the moderate wing, is the leader of government business in the lower house.

Ms Berejiklian, who is in Europe trying to drum up investment, is taking time out to issue statements placating the right wing.

This is crazy. The party should unite around Ms Berejiklian who has just delivered a third term to the Coalition in a very tough election.

Instead, some factional leaders are undermining her authority. The accusations of bad faith flying inside the cabinet will leave wounds. The Liberal Party used to contrast its broad church with the ALP's insistence on following the party line. Liberal MPs should be treating each other with more respect.

The debate which now shifts to the upper house should also proceed in a more reasoned manner based on a close reading of the bill.

Critics claim this bill marks a dramatic change to the law in NSW, which will allow late-term abortions and gender selection by parents wanting to abort female fetuses.

Yet the bill’s opponents must be aware that abortion, including late-term abortions, is already permitted and widely available in NSW as a result of common law court decisions going back to the '70s.

This bill won’t change that. It simply confirms the legal status quo in legislation. In fact, it makes it slightly harder to obtain late-term abortions because two doctors must be involved rather than one under the current rules.

Moreover, there is currently no provision in law making it illegal to seek an abortion in order to choose the sex of the child. The bill in its current form, will not change that.

The Herald is on record supporting the bill but both sides should be able to agree on these legal facts. If the opponents of the bill want to propose new safeguards, as the Premier has suggested, they are welcome to do so.

To use the abortion bill as a tool to advance political ambition, however, is not in the best interests of NSW or the issue at hand.

  • The Herald's editor Lisa Davies writes a weekly newsletter exclusively for subscribers. To have it delivered to your inbox, please sign up here