Bishops join anti-abortion protests

THE campaign against decriminalising abortion in Tasmania is heating up.

Politicians have been lobbied by anti-abortion groups since Health Minister Michelle O'Byrne released a private members bill proposing the law change two weeks ago.

On Wednesday, a silent protest by 80 people was held outside her Launceston office in opposition to the laws.

Abortion is a crime in Tasmania but medical terminations may be performed at any time if two doctors certify that it is necessary to avert a physical or psychological risk to the woman.

The new laws would allow open access to abortion up to 24 weeks' gestation, and access after 24 weeks if two doctors certify that abortion poses a lesser risk to the woman's welfare than continuing the pregnancy.

Ms O'Byrne said the debate about whether women had the right to abortion had been won a decade ago when the exemptions allowing abortion in some circumstances were included in the Criminal Code.

But she said the legal uncertainty created by keeping abortion in the code meant doctors were reluctant to perform the procedure. Two clinics operated by fly-in doctors perform the bulk of abortions in Tasmania at the moment, but they are not able to operate past about 12 weeks.

``This legislation is about addressing those issues and ensuring our laws reflect what they were intended to reflect,'' Ms O'Byrne said.

Anglican Bishop John Harrower remembers the last campaign differently. Reverend Harrower says he was criticised by many in the church for supporting the 2002 amendments.

But he said that change was to allow doctors to end pregnancies which posed a serious health risk to the woman, or which arose from horrific circumstances such as rape or incest and could cause significant psychological harm.

``There are times, sadly, where you effectively have to chose between two lives,'' Reverend Harrower said.

The Reproductive Health Bill, he said, was a different beast entirely.

``It is an extreme piece of legislation,'' he said.

Reverend Harrower said he did not agree with allowing free-choice abortions up to 24 weeks' gestation, and said the inclusion of socio-economic circumstances in the list of things doctors could consider when permitting a late-term abortion was ``verging on the obscene''.

``There's a total disregard of the life or the rights of the unborn,'' he said. ``We are having imposed on us a culture of death, instead of a culture of life.''

Catholic Archbishop Adrian Doyle has also slammed the proposed legislation, repeating the church's position that right to life begins at conception.

Reverend Harrower's concerns are not limited to open access.

He is also concerned about the conscientious objection clause, which carries fine of up to $65,000 for a doctors who either do not disclose an objection or refuse to refer the woman on to a doctor who does not have an objection, and the ban on protesting within 150 metres of a clinic.

Supporters of the bill, including Family Planning Tasmania, the Link Youth Health Service, Women's Legal Service and Hobart Women's Health Service, say decriminalising would provide equitable access for women and prevent Tasmanians from having to travel to Victoria, where abortion was legalised in 2008.

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