My Daily Advertiser Op Ed column for Tuesday 20 April 2019

by ray goodlass

Religious conservatives hijack the abortion debate

The spark for today’s column was last Monday’s Daily Advertiser editorial, which commented on Wagga’s state MP Joe McGirr’s opposition to the Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill 2019 (aka the Abortion Law Reform Bill) being “inextricably linked to his “position as a Catholic and a doctor”.

It sparked my interest because today I had planned to focus on the growing power of religious conservatism. I don’t wish to tar Mr McGirr with that particular brush, unless of course he feels he belongs in that category. If he does let’s hope he comes clean by the time the next state election rolls around.

As I should now: I believe it is high time abortion was removed from the criminal code, firmly approve of the bill, would in truth like it to have gone further, and strongly support a woman’s right to choose.

Now to the main thrust of today’s column, which is the way the hard-right of American religious conservatism hijacked our abortion debate to suit its own political ends. Here I am not referring to the traditional opposition to abortion felt some religious denominations for their own, if to my mind misguided, reasoning.

Some current and former federal politicians weighed in on the issue. Barnaby Joyce, who seems to have forgotten his own recent personal history to now pose as a self-appointed moral champion said that his new baby son Tom had rights in the womb and no state parliament should take them away.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott really ramped up the rhetoric to a truly poisonous level by calling the reform bill “death on demand”. I guess it gave him another three-word slogan to add to his list.

Abbott linked the abortion bill to Victoria’s assisted-dying laws and said the nation had lost its “moral anchor points” which “used to be anchored in the Christian faith”.

“Faith is a gift,” he said. “Some people have it, some people don’t.” Faith is a club, apparently. It’s very clear what he thinks of those not in it, but I often wonder what he would do if he didn’t have people to vilify.

Now, to the gist of today’s column. Mr Abbott made the comments at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Sydney, which is a new Australian offshoot of a powerful American libertarian movement.

The US original of CPAC launched Donald Trump as a presidential contender when he spoke there in 2011. It is as American as the stars and stripes, and its importation to Australia is fitting, because increasingly the far-right and religious-right conservatives in this country seem to be expropriating most of their ideas from the Americans.

Indeed, the objections to our long overdue NSW abortion bill were lifted straight from the songbook of the US pro-life lobby: focus on rare late-term abortions, induce fear about women aborting babies a few weeks before their due dates, and, when it looks like you’ve lost the main battle, erect administrative and medical barriers to accessing terminations.

There was even a late attempt by one MP to move amendments to prevent ‘sex-selection’ abortions, which we were told occur in Australian Indian and Chinese communities. This was totally dishonest at best and blatantly racist at worst.

It was of course a total furphy, for there is no evidence sex selection occurs in NSW and was directly imported from the American pro-lifers.

“They were trying to put Alabama-style anti-abortion talking points into the legislation,” noted NSW MP Alex Greenwich, the independent who brought on the bill after years of lobbying by the Greens NSW.

This branch of conservatism implies that the decline of religion in developed democracies is responsible for a fragmentation of social order. It is nonsensical and very divisive, for it sees religious people as the only ones fighting a war against that decline.

It is reactionary rather than conservative. It doesn’t seek to carefully manage social change; instead, as a reflex, it opposes change absolutely.

But most importantly, it is very nasty. It combines the worst parts of Trump’s rhetoric with a religiosity that denies the humanity of anyone who doesn’t adhere to it. It is one American import we could do without, and I hope to goodness it doesn’t catch on here.