If abortion is a religious issue, why is the state involved?

I ONCE met a woman who taught sex education in a Catholic school. She was warm and enthusiastic and transparently sincere. She told me Catholic schools had changed, and that she was able to teach girls they had choices about their sexuality.

“They can choose to be chaste until marriage, or they can choose to be the town bike,” she said, beaming. “Uh, huh,” was the most neutral response I could muster.

She was as entitled to her belief in the two absolutes – chastity or promiscuity – as I was to my belief that there is a responsible middle course involving neither. And her attitude was no skin off my nose because she was never going to impose it on me or mine; she moulded children whose parents sought out an educational system imbued with those values. Each to their own.

If only there were such a clear division between church and state in the abortion debate. This is an arena where those driven by religious belief often wield power out of all proportion to their support in the community.

Last week a visiting American doctor was detained and told he would be deported or imprisoned if he advocated “activities” in relation to abortion. This followed lobbying of the Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, by anti-abortion groups.

In America, President Bill Clinton has agreed to limit aid for international family planning initiatives that support abortion. Republican congressional leaders have for years refused to pass Budget legislation allowing the US to pay its back dues to the United Nations unless Clinton agreed to the restrictions.

Although pro-choice himself – heaven help any man married to Hillary who wasn’t – Clinton capitulated this time because the US faced losing its seat in the UN General Assembly if the debts remained unpaid. Now organisations funded by US money will be forbidden to lobby for liberalised abortion laws.

There will be little joy about that among desperate women in countries such as Nepal, where six women a day die from botched illegal abortions and two-thirds of women in prison are there for abortion or infanticide.

Like the sex ed teacher, these Republicans deal in moral absolutes: abortion is always wrong, never mind poverty or illness, rape or incest or despair. But, unlike the sex ed teacher, they are in a position to impose their views on others who differ.

The power of the American anti-choice movement is understandable. Opposition to abortion is strongly linked to church attendance, and a third of Americans regularly front up in their Sunday best, compared with only one-fifth of Australians.

The US is also a country in which the separation of church and state has favored religion. Its founding fathers, having fled persecution in the old world, focused more on protecting freedom of worship from state intervention than protecting the sovereignty of the state from religion.

But why is it that Australian anti-abortion campaigners – most of whom have strong links to churches – have so much political influence?

It’s certainly not because they speak for the community. Research findings released this week suggest only three in a hundred Australians oppose abortion under all circumstances.

Among the 2151 people surveyed, 97per cent said abortion should be allowed in cases of danger to the mother’s health, 92 per cent after rape, and 88 per cent where there was a strong likelihood of a serious birth defect. Most said abortion should be allowed for reasons such as poverty, unwed motherhood, or couples wanting no more children.

These views do not fit with abortion’s continued position in the Victorian criminal code. They do not fit with restrictions on the morning-after pill RU486, or the inability of many rural women to gain access to abortion services.

The report said the abortion debate remains very much a religious matter, with churchgoing the single most important factor differentiating opponents from supporters.

It concluded that “the separation of church and state” is actually a polite fiction that can be maintained only in the face of consensus about central values. Where the two do separate over values, there is friction, with abortion providing the clearest example.

The results of a previous survey tell us how Australians think such conflicts should be handled: only one-third believes it is appropriate for religious leaders to try to influence government decisions.

There is a case for churches to speak out on social justice issues because they are such big providers of services to those in need. Their dictates on reproductive morality are another matter.

Extremism in relation to abortion has declined in the past decade. Most Australians have come to understand that this painful, tragic, private business is a bad thing in itself, but justifiable if it avoids something even worse. They have abandoned the false certainty of black-and-white positions to grapple with the complexities of greys.

Some will see the shift away from the absolutism of “never” as godlessness. Most of us, though, will recognise it as a moral coming-of-age.

First published in The Age.