Jane Caro: The Church Is Finally Losing Its Grip On Births, Deaths And Marriages

It only took 119 years but, at long last, NSW women who do not wish to carry a pregnancy through to term -- for whatever reason -- can safely and legally access an abortion up until 22 weeks.

(After that there are a few hurdles that must still be overcome.) Access and affordability of such services remains a problem, particularly in rural areas, among the very young, Indigenous women, those from very conservative communities, or for whom language is a barrier. But today, those of us who have fought for this reform for decades can celebrate.

Then we continue the access fight tomorrow.

Despite the fact my home state was the very last to decriminalise the procedure and that polls consistently reported more than 70 percent of NSW voters were in favour, the fight for abortion law reform was bitter and drawn out.

READ MORE: Bill TO Decriminalise Abortion Passes NSW Upper House

Today, those of us who have fought for this reform for decades can celebrate. (Image: AAP)

Although co-sponsored by 15 MPs across all parties, it became the third-longest running debate in NSW Upper House history and the invective, particularly among opponents, was especially vicious and divisive. One of the co-sponsors of the Bill told me quietly that he had thought the abuse he copped when he supported the Same Sex Marriage plebiscite would be the worst he’d ever have to experience, but that the attacks he and the other MPs supporting reform had to put up with over abortion were even worse.

Abortion has always been an emotive and hard-fought issue, but this debate was so intense the three hardest-line opponents threatened variously to move a spill against the Premier, to cross the floor and to leave their party and so throw their government into minority. That’s hard ball. None of those scenarios eventuated, and after a few amendments were accepted (unnecessary ones, in my view) the Bill was finally passed 26 votes to 14.

But why was this particular battle fought so desperately?

I think that this was actually a bigger fight than who controls a woman’s uterus, and -- as the owner of a uterus myself -- I don’t say that to belittle how important it is to control your own body. Nonetheless, I think this was an existential fight for the religious right in general, and the Catholic Church in particular. Not all churches felt as threatened. The Uniting Church, to its eternal credit, broke ranks and supported abortion law reform in NSW.

READ MORE: Alex Greenwich: This Is Why I Wrote The Abortion Bill

For millennia in the West (then referred to as ‘Christendom’), the church controlled everyone’s lives, whatever they may or may not have secretly believed. And they had to be secretive if they believed things contrary to church teaching -- persecution of heretics was both common and terrifying. As secularism encroached, post the Enlightenment, church influence receded to the extent that all they really controlled was birth, death and marriage.

The NSW abortion bill debate seemed to be an existential fight for the religious right. (Image: Getty)

The first domino to fall in Australia, of course, was marriage, with the overwhelming success of the same-sex marriage plebiscite. Such was the angst around that loss that the religious right wasted no time drafting a so-called ‘Religious Freedom Bill’ to claw back some of the control they had lost. It has always seemed an odd argument to me to claim that your freedom is being oppressed because you have lost the right to limit the freedom of others, by, for example, refusing to allow them to be legally married or forcing them to give birth against their will or risk criminal prosecution.

As of yesterday, now that abortion is no longer a criminal offense in any state of Australia, the religious right have also lost control of birth. No wonder their representatives -- and almost all the major opponents of the reform, whatever their party, had strong religious beliefs -- fought so hard against it. The next logical step, of course, and this has already happened in Victoria, is the fight over who will control the way we die.

READ MORE: Voluntary Assisted Dying Is Now Legal In Victoria

Will it be the church? Or will it be the person who is dying -- who may, of course, decide to relinquish that control to their church if they are a religious believer. But that decision will no longer be forced -- just as no one is forcing anyone to have an abortion or marry someone of the same sex.

Who will control the way we die? Will it be the church, or will it be the person who is dying? (Image: Getty)

I predict that the fight over Voluntary Assisted Dying will be even harder than the other two. It is the hill on which religious authoritarians are prepared to die, if you will excuse the expression. And it will be a harder fight for those -- like me -- who believe that suffering at the end of someone’s life should only ever be voluntary and never compulsory because there are many in the medical profession who are uncertain about VAD.

READ MORE: The Hypocrisy At The Heart Of The Call For 'Freedom Of Religion'

Nevertheless, I believe that this fight will also be won. The population is ageing. Medical science is able to keep us alive far longer and in worse shape than any of us really want. Palliative care is great, as far as it goes, but given a population who are increasingly demanding their right to control their own fate, and who are correspondingly less and less likely to believe in a god, the end is inevitable.