Bishop affirms the sanctity of life but says NSW abortion bill should pass

Anglican Bishop of Newcastle, Dr Peter Stuart, says he views all human life as sacred “from its inception until death” but has written to NSW politicians encouraging them to support the controversial abortion bill currently before the state parliament.

Debate on the Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill 2019 started today in the NSW parliament’s lower house. The bill would allow pregnancy terminations up to 22 weeks, and beyond that with the consent of two doctors.

“I think the bill reflects the best of a complex scenario.” – Bishop Peter Stuart

“I encourage you to support the overarching proposal to move the legal management of the termination of pregnancy from the criminal code,” Stuart wrote in his letter. “The healthcare regulatory framework is a better place for governing the complex decision-making associated with pregnancy and matters associated with conscience.”

Stuart told Eternity that he had “some reservations” about the bill as it currently stands, but those reservations did not warrant opposing the bill overall.

“I think the bill reflects the best of a complex scenario. I can have reservations about people taking action under the bill, but in terms of what the law of the state should be, I think we’ve probably got the best version that we’re likely to get,” he said.

In the letter, Stuart outlined what he believed to be the view of Anglicans, that “there are circumstances where medical termination of pregnancy may be seen as the best available option.”

That view is at odds with the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies, who last week urged state MPs to reject the bill, arguing changing abortion laws needed wider community consultation and should not be rushed.

Both Stuart and Davies agree that abortion is available already in New South Wales, despite its regulation under the Crimes Act 1900. While Davies says it should remain under the criminal code, which he believes “strengthens the protection of women from pressure, medical malpractice and safeguards the conscience of doctors”, Stuart argues that taking abortion out of the Crimes Act may improve regulation.

“It’s an improvement to have legislation that reflects what people are prepared to enforce.” – Bishop Peter Stuart

“What we have is a situation where health practice, medical practice and medical advisory has already moved to a different place than is reflected in the law. What this bill is doing is proposing to actually regularise the framework under a legislative framework that allows for some sort of supervision and structure. In that way, I think it’s an improvement to have legislation that reflects what people are prepared to enforce, rather than legislation which people are not prepared to enforce.”

Stuart declared his belief that Anglicans still oppose abortion on many grounds, including as a means of birth control, family planning, sex selection, or any reason of “mere convenience”.

“I do want us as churches and communities to be doing whatever we can to enable women and families to make positive, life-affirming choices,” Stuart told Eternity. 

In the letter, the Bishop said, “We remain concerned about ethical practices that deny the dignity and contribution of people born with a disability.”

But, he says, the advice he is listening to suggests the number of abortions is unlikely to change as a result of the decriminalisation.

“One thing that is quite clear is that people who are in poverty have less ability to make a range of health choices.” – Bishop Peter Stuart

“I think those conversations [on action to take in the face of foetal defects or genetic conditions] are best done personally, under an ethical framework. One of the reservations I’ve expressed is that we don’t really, as a community, have any say in how the medical profession sets its ethical framework, and that’s an area I have some misgivings about. But the bill wasn’t the place at which to be able to change those practices,” Stuart said.

Stuart believes the church can have influence in the choices women and families make under new abortion laws, which make it easier for them to have their babies.

“One thing that is quite clear is that people who are in poverty have less ability to make a range of health choices. We are in a situation in Australia where we have increasing groups experiencing poverty and as we look at the social determinants of health, we do need to be confronting and challenging policies that keep people in poverty – like the government’s decision [not to increase] Newstart, which traps people in poverty if they’re unable to find work.

“There are also choices in [how we conduct] sex education and people’s understanding of human intimacy. And a range of choices in ensuring people have free and easy access to healthcare and finally the whole area of vulnerability to violence and coercion in family relationships and the impact that has on abortion. I think those are things we can be contributing to as an Anglican church.”

“The Uniting Church asserts that abortion is a health and social issue and should not be a criminal issue.” – Simon Hansford

Stuart is not the only Christian leader to go public in support of the abortion bill. At the weekend, the Uniting Church of NSW sent an open letter to NSW MPs arguing that “abortion is not just a moral issue but a social one”.

“While some aspects of the current debate attempt to pass moral judgement on the act itself, it ignores the many emotional, physical, financial and social issues that often create a situation where a woman is forced to consider an abortion. The Uniting Church asserts that abortion is a health and social issue and should not be a criminal issue,” wrote Simon Hansford, moderator of the Uniting Church NSW and ACT.

Both anti-abortion and pro-choice protestors have maintained a presence outside NSW Parliament House advocating their positions.

Read the full text of the Bishop’s letter to MPs and Newcastle clergy, here.