100 years of Australian Labor
In June of 1991, the Australian Labor Party was celebrating 100 years since its founding in Barcaldine, Queensland. The Centennial Conference of the Queensland ALP met in Brisbane. A motion was passed calling for the Parliamentary wing of the party to implement state policy and remove abortion from the criminal code. The following opposing document was circulated during the debate, and the broad membership of the party was thus made aware of a coherent position consistent with Labor principle that opposed decriminalisation.
In the ensuing years, ALP parliamentary leaders and members exercised their option not to pursue decriminalisation, in line with federal party policy that no decision of any party body with respect to this issue was binding on party members, and that any vote would be on conscience grounds.
Perhaps the new generation of Labor parliamentarians, delegates and members will find advantage in considering this argument as they go about debating, and ultimately voting on, the recommendations of the Queensland Law Reform Commission regarding abortion law in Queensland.
Labor and Abortion: a case for reconsideration
“Being Labor is a state of mind; not a set of policies.”
“O, it is excellent To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous to use it like a Giant.”
Measure for Measure, Act II, Scene II
The current policy of the Queensland Branch of the Australian Labor Party in regard to abortion is to be found in the Justice Legal and Constitutional Affairs Policy, paragraph 11 as follows:
“A Labor Government should amend the law so that all legal distinctions between termination of pregnancy and other medical procedures should be abolished by repealing Sections 224, 225 and 226 of the Queensland Criminal Code.”
In considering the policy, we need merely reflect that medical procedures are of a diverse character, but generally are either necessary or elective, or a combination of both. What is common to all is that either the person on whom the procedure is to be performed or another authorised person gives consent for that procedure. This common denominator of consent, in this case the consent of the woman and not necessity, is to be the governing factor in a decision to abort a child. The policy presumes that the moral status of abortion is such that it can be equated with a decision to have a facelift or a hair implant. It should be added that the woman’s “choice” can only be given effect if medical personnel are available who will perform those activities necessary to give effect to that choice but in current circumstances, that is really not a practical difficulty.
The validity of that “choice” should, I believe, be considered in light of our heritage and “the state of mind” which was and is necessary to give effect to the Labor movement. Whatever historians may determine as the precise practical events which gave rise to the Labor movement, there is no doubt that the individuals involved acted in the defence of the dignity of human labour. It is this idea that provides the Labor movement’s “state of mind”.
The late 18th and 19th century was, if anything, the age of unregulated economic activity. The apostles of what is now called “social Darwinism” were largely ascendant in matters political. Put crudely, their argument was along the following lines:
We all have a primary obligation to look out for ourselves. To survive, we must produce those things necessary for life. Our chances of survival will be better the greater the amount of production in society. Production occurs as a result of work. If we work harder we will produce more. Therefore if we desire to increase production, we must better reward those who work harder. Society will be better if it contains only those people who are hard workers. Those who don’t work or don’t work hard enough should fall by the wayside. We can look after these people if we feel like it, but we should not delude ourselves that this “charity” is mere emotionalism. Society gets stronger, that is, more prosperous, more fit to survive, if work is encouraged and that is to be encouraged by inequality of wealth.
It should be noted that in respect of those unable to work, both the classical advocates of communism and capitalism, Marx and Smith, have this in common. “All value comes from labour” translates as “if you can’t labour you have no value”. Neither of these views were concerned to look after the weak. Ethics or the prospects for a decent society play no part in their theories.
This was a time when, to use Disraeli’s description “the world was for the few and for the very few“. The catalogue of human suffering from that time, the appalling social and industrial conditions, can still arouse outrage in us. The view of the social Darwinists had ramifications in both the design of parliamentary institutions and the attitude towards the formation of free trade unions.
The enfranchisement of all citizens meant that even the “lazy” (that is, the unemployed and infirm) could vote. They would have the greater numbers in a representative chamber and society needed the steady hand of propertied people to prevent the “lazy” taking the wealth earned by others for themselves. We therefore see the rise of unrepresentative upper houses with substantial property qualifications viz. the House of Lords and the US Senate until both were reformed, and the various State Legislative Councils which could reject legislation passed by the representative house.
When workers banded together to ask for greater than starvation wages, this was apt in the eyes of the social Darwinists to lead to a decrease in the desire to produce, a threat to the self-sufficiency of the rich; both concerns being conveniently buried in alarm about the inviolability of contract. Of course, the Courts of Common Law saw that these “social vandals”, who wished to found free trade unions and breach contracts and threaten harm to their employer, were duly punished. The SEQEB and Pilots disputes showed that this view still has some legal force. By placing the accent on the production of wealth, society reduced human beings to mere units of productive activity.
Against the assertions of mainstream thought, the Labor movement’s argument was for workers to be treated as human beings; to be given humane and decent wages and conditions.
The necessity for husband and wife and children to all work in order to ensure family survival was attacked and the proposition that a single wage should be necessary to support one’s dependants was vigorously promoted. The arguments advanced find their full flower in the “Harvester” judgement wherein a basic wage was established, such being sufficient to provide husband, wife and children with the necessities of life and a margin of comfort. Contrary to the then accepted view, the success of the Labor movement’s argument in fact provided the basis for society’s prosperity. By increasing workers’ incomes greater demand was created and the problems of over-production diminished. The triumph of the Labor movement is not only a story or a history; it is a spectacle and a lesson. It teaches us about the triumph of ideas through persistence, but also it teaches us about which ideas have solid roots in our humanity and deserve to triumph. This year we all should reflect on this.
That the socialism of the Labor movement was not narrowly based as with Marxism, is evidenced by the concern for those other than workers, and by its democratic sympathies. Unlike the narrow creeds of Adam Smith and Karl Marx, the protection of the aged and the infirm, the widow and the orphan, was a central concern of this movement from its beginning. As well, the advocates of class tyranny were rejected at quite an early stage and the movement gave rise to our political party. The party was primarily industrially based, but its claim was always to be “every man’s party”. That the Labor movement was democratic was hardly surprising. Democracy has its foundation in the idea that for human beings, government should exist only with the consent of the governed. It is, to use Lincoln’s immortal phrase, “Government of the people, by the people, for the people“.
The idea behind Labor’s participation in, and fulsome support for, democratic life was well explained by Ben Chifley.
“I try to think of the Labor movement not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody’s pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people; better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective – the light on the hill – which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind, not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand.”
Democratic life is important because it is through the democratic process that we are given an opportunity to assist others in a manner befitting both our and their human dignity. In considering the character of a democracy we realise it is ruled by opinion. Therefore, in a democracy true gratitude should be given to those who mould public opinion in a decent direction. They go deeper than those who legislate. We need only reflect that a Curtin–Chifley government could legislate for pensions and child endowment only because of the ceaseless agitation of generations previous. Similarly, because of the widespread acceptance of the arguments put by Chifley, Liberal governments could not deregulate financial institutions in this country.
In any discussing any suggestion for legalised abortion or any other policy, we should be aware of the need to maintain a direction in social opinion which will enhance the role of the institutions integral to the Labor movement.
The arguments for the right to abortion are many and varied. They range from mere slogan and assertion such as “The right to choose“, “Hands off my body” to those of a more profound nature. In seeking to determine in what direction our heritage should guide us, it would be helpful to consider exactly what is the “choice” that we are being asked to sanction.
Abortion of course, involves procedures for intervening in the mother’s womb and removing the child (“foetus”, “embryo”, “lump of tissue”) which is present there. The issue is apt to be determined on the question as to the status of the child. Either the child has a status which gives society an interest in ensuring its protection, or it does not. Two alternative arguments are available to those who say society should not be concerned.
If the child is human, and society as a whole says “though human it is not worthy of protection“, then there must be some basis for distinguishing those humans who should be protected and those who are not. Currently our law permits one sensible exception in the name of self defence. If it is reasonable in the circumstances we can kill those who threaten our own life. We are being asked to vary this by introducing death by consent, in this case, of the mother. But by what principle would we limit death by consent to this situation? In a democracy, it is the consent of the majority which will govern the situation. If this consent is to be given merely by a majority vote of enfranchised citizens, then who is to say where that will end? What principle can we discern to distinguish a majority wish that the disabled or elderly are “human but not worthy of protection” or even those who have different coloured skin to the majority; perhaps even those who have blonde hair and blue eyes. If we accept the policy then we move society in the direction of any human life being extinguished by whim.
The other argument which is presented is even more insidious. It is masked as follows.
“No-one really knows when life begins. You should not force your view about this on anyone else. The woman carrying a child is most directly interested in the matter and she should be free to make up her own mind“.
This argument really means that we cannot distinguish between the human and the non-human. The view that human beings have a nature and that human life is, as a result, continuous, is presumed incorrect. The fact that we are, after all, all “born of a woman” is disregarded.
What this argument means is that the dividing line between humanity and other creatures is not determined by nature, but by society itself or, in this case, a woman and her abortionist. Yet, we all know we must distinguish between humans and other creatures. In a democracy we do not after all, give the right to vote to monkeys or dogs. Nor do free trade unions admit performing seals or circus lions as members. Even the various groups who agitate for a “woman’s choice” do not, so far as I am aware, admit other creatures as members or agitate for “the choice” to be given to other child bearing mammals. It is a choice solely restricted to female human beings.
The annals of history contain the curious fact that Caligula, a debased Roman emperor, made his horse a pro-Consul of the Empire. This has generally been taken to indicate his madness. However, those who favour the above logic would no doubt be consistent and argue merely that Caligula had a different view as to the dividing line between those creatures who should participate fully in society, and those who should not.
The consequences for the triumph of those who would advocate a right of choice in abortion are profound. Once again, society is being asked to deny the intrinsic dignity of humanity, to return to the debased logic which ruled prior to the rise of the Labor movement. There is simply no dignity of human labour without humanity itself, nor is there government “by the people” if there are no people. No democratic society can allow its members every choice they desire, lest it threaten its own character. It is not every choice made “by the people” that is “for the people”.
The arguments for abortion are akin to those put by the slave owners in the United States and elsewhere prior to the Civil War.
“You don’t force me not to own slaves. I won’t force you to own slaves.”
The abortion question, as with slavery a century ago, rests on the human status or otherwise of the unborn and the duties each of us, and we as a society, have to our fellow human beings.
In respect of the individual woman moved to seek abortion, she may do so for a number of reasons but foremost is her belief that she cannot cope with the child in her current circumstances. It is a sign of a lack of hope in her life, an act of despair. The male involved on the other hand will be induced by our policy to not consider either the child or the woman: to “leave it to the woman”. In promoting choice we are promoting despair and irresponsibility, both of which are inimical to democratic life and the Labor movement for democracy rests on hope; on a belief that a free people is in large measure the master of its own destiny.
The triumph of the ideologues of free choice on this and other matters enhances the sense of powerlessness and strengthens the tendency for people to shrug their shoulders and retreat into the comparative safety of a de-politicised private life. We should consider the consequences of this tendency which is now rapidly spreading in our society. Abortion is about a triumph for the politics of despair and it bodes ill for our movement. Thoughtful trade unionists who are aware of the basis of their calling should realise this and not resile from discussing this unpleasant topic. They would do well to reflect on the words of Macbeth:
“Bloody instructions which, being taught, return to plague the inventor. This even-handed justice commends the ingredients of our poisn’d chalice to our own lips.”