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Padraic P. McGuinness, “A serious politician takes up cudgels against selective moralisers,” The Sydney Morning Herald, March 23, 2004, p. 11.

The trivialisation of the debate about abortion was brought out clearly by the response to the address by the federal Minister of Health, Tony Abbott, in Adelaide last week in which he dealt with a rather wider issue: the appropriate behaviour of a religious believer in public office. The fact that this was his real topic was totally neglected among the usual denunciations of anyone who expresses reservations about the desirability of the present level of abortion in our community, and whether that is a good thing.

This is only in part a question of religion.

The crude abuse coming from many of the ageing feminists and their ideological children who have for years repeated the tired stuff about women having the sole rights over their own bodies, as if there were no moral or ethical issues beyond that, merely shows that they have devoted no serious thought to the issue since the 1970s. It is nevertheless becoming more, not less, complex as consideration of the applicability of manslaughter legislation to the death of an unborn child indicates.

Nor has anyone ever seriously believed that a woman has a moral right to abort a foetus just before its expected term, any more than to commit infanticide.

But Abbott was not even talking about these issues. He was dealing with a very different matter, which he crystallised as “How I can preside over a Medicare system which funds 75,000 abortions a year?” while believing that abortion is contrary to the precepts of his religion which he, unlike many who profess faith, takes seriously.

He did not even suggest that he intended to interfere with what is now a generally accepted part of bipartisan public policy, even though he expressed his own unhappiness with such a rate, and suggested ways it might be reduced. He did not, however, refer to the best possible way to reduce the rate of abortion, which is, of course, the use of contraceptives by the most risk-prone women and girls, so that the need or demand for abortion need rarely arise.

His church, whenever its teachings influence public policy on this matter, contributes inevitably to higher rates of unwanted pregnancy and hence abortion.

But Abbott’s point was that it is possible for people with deeply held religious beliefs to play a part in political life without attempting to impose them on the rest of the community. This is a direct denial of accusations that his church interferes in secular government through those members who occupy public office.

It is an important part of the current doctrine of the Catholic Church (reiterated last year by Cardinal George Pell) that it willingly coexists with democratic government.

Abbott was making a further point, too. This is that he thought it rather puzzling that no local Christian had ever asked him about the incompatibility of his religion with his administration of the Health Department and Medicare, while there are continual questions about “How can you live with yourself as a Catholic when your Government treats women and children with such cruelty?” meaning women and children who have arrived with the help of people smugglers. Is there not some inconsistency here?

Of course there is, and he pointed to two kinds of politician: “There’s the Christian MP who seeks to reinforce ethical values and the Christian MP who’s keen to promote the ‘social gospel’.” He went on, “It’s easy to confuse the Christian calling of individuals with the public duty of governments. Love is a fine guide for individuals but folly for governments.”

That is about where he ended his lesson on the elementary issues of the difference between religious or moral beliefs and the public duty of those who administer the government of the community or, one might say the doctrine of separation of church and state, which does not preclude either a committed believer or even someone who has been ordained or its equivalent to a religious calling becoming a prime minister or governor-general. As the functions of government and administration of a religion are best kept apart, so should be religion and politics.

But one might reflect on what Abbott might have said about the hypocrisy and double standards of those who attack him for his views on abortion while having no hesitation in trying to impose their own morals on others. Why not a slogan like “Get your morals off the bodies of those who seek illegal entry”?

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