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Catholic bioethicists call for legal protections for aborted children born alive

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Catholic bioethics and legal experts have called for children born alive after an abortion to be granted legal protections at a Senate committee hearing on 8 June.

Health practitioners are not required by law to provide medical or palliative care or treatment to a child who survives an abortion.

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Senators Matthew Canavan and Alex Antic introduced a bill to Federal Parliament last November to protect such newborns, following the defeat of a similar push by former MP George Christensen earlier in the year.

The bill would require a child born alive after an abortion to be given the same medical treatment or palliative care as a newborn.

Health practitioners who neglected to do so would be prosecuted, but a woman whose child was left to die unaided after an abortion would not be held liable.

It would also make health practitioners responsible for reporting births of children born alive as a result of terminations, to correct the problem of insufficient data.

“This bill requires what ought to be something straightforward,” Dr Bernadette Tobin, director of the Australian Catholic University’s Plunkett Centre for Ethics wrote in her submission to the Community Affairs Legislation Committee’s inquiry.

“It reminds the community that, at law, children born alive in whatever circumstances (including after attempts at termination) are human beings and thus that healthcare practitioners have the same duty of care to these children as they do to anyone else requiring emergency medical care.

“The bill does not interfere with the laws about abortion.

“If passed, all it would do would be to clarify that the laws on infanticide, that is, the deliberate bringing about of the death of a newborn child by either act or omission, applies in these circumstances.”

Adelaide legal academic Dr Joanna Howe and Dr Johnny Sakr, an adjunct lecturer for the School of Law at the University of Notre Dame Australia, were also invited to appear at a public hearing of the committee in Parliament House on 8 June.

Dr Howe explained in her written submission that despite reporting requirements varying between states and territories, information gleaned from coroner’s reports and the media showed that 328 children were born alive post-abortion in Queensland and 396 children in Victoria over the 10 years from 2010 to 2020.

She cited nine cases, including one child who was later released from hospital as a 10-month old baby, and Jessica Jane who a Northern Territory coroner reported was left on a kidney dish for 80 minutes until she died, following an attempted abortion in a medical facility in 2000.

Dr Sakr said the bill is needed to address a gap in Australia’s laws which effectively allows for the “unlawful homicide” of children born alive as the result of an abortion.

“Abortion does not amount to homicide because the child in utero is not recognised as a ‘person’ in Australia because it is not ‘born alive,’” he told The Catholic Weekly.

“Only until a child is born alive is it endowed with personhood and thus, can be recognised as a separate victim.

“It follows from this that refusing to provide medical care to a child who is born alive amounts to allowing a person to be killed, warranting the charge of homicide.”

There were 122 submissions to the inquiry, including from abortion provider Marie Stopes International arguing against bill.

Public Health Association chief executive officer Terry Slevin has criticised it as an exercise in “value signalling” that follows similar moves in the US and “denies women’s reproductive freedom.”

The Community Affairs Legislation Committee is due to report back to parliament on 1 July.

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