News National Garry Linnell: This is the real practice the right-to-life protests should focus on

Garry Linnell: This is the real practice the right-to-life protests should focus on

abortion bill NSW
Anti-abortion protestors gathered at Martin Place in Sydney. Photo: Getty
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Sorry. Did I miss it? I’ve been watching all the news programs and scanning all the websites. But not a protest in sight.

Where are all the angry crowds with their placards and banners?

You know, that self-righteous anti-abortion lobby who like staging demonstrations about the sanctity of human life, who love nothing more than moralising about how the intervention of medicine and science in human life is an affront to God?

You might have thought last week’s revelation that a 74-year-old woman in India giving birth to twin girls following an IVF procedure would have had them back on the streets, chanting and hurling abuse.

But there wasn’t a blowhard to be seen or heard.

For months they have been staging noisy rallies opposing legislation going through the NSW Parliament removing abortion from that state’s criminal code.

This week it culminated with threats of a leadership spill by conservative Liberal backbenchers against premier Gladys Berejiklian.

The bill, based on legislation in other states, would allow terminations up to 22 weeks.

An abortion beyond that stage would require the approval of two doctors, one of them a specialist obstetrician or gynaecologist.

The week it culminated in threats of a leadership spill. Photo: AAP

Barnaby Joyce, that outstanding moral leader of our time, has labelled it “the slavery debate of our time”.

Yet when doctors helped septuagenarian Erramatti Mangayamma carry to term a donor’s egg fertilised by her 78-year-old husband’s sperm – surely a massive intervention in the natural way of things if ever there was one – we have heard nothing but silence.

Well, not quite. There was the sound of ambulance sirens in southern India last week when Ms Erramatti’s frail husband, Raja Rao, collapsed from a heart attack a day after the birth of his two daughters.

Here, surely, is a moral and ethical debate worthy of our times.

If it is wrong to terminate life, what are the rules around its conception? And what are the limits?

Is it acceptable that after a 57-year childless marriage, a couple more accustomed to God’s waiting room than the delivery room should be blessed by science with their most cherished wish?

Both elderly parents, exhausted by the pregnancy and no doubt stressed by all the attention, would appear to be in no shape to raise children.

As reported by The Times of London, both are in intensive care and doubts are growing about their ability to rear twin girls without a great deal of assistance.

So what in hell were this elderly Indian couple and their doctors thinking?

We all know science is pushing back barriers that nature installed millions of years ago, with people living longer thanks to greater nutrition and advancements in medical care.

The world’s officially oldest person – Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment – lived to 122 years. But that was only because she listened to her doctors and gave up smoking … at the age of 117.

According to some scientists, the first person to make it past 150 is now believed to be among us, and by the end of this century, they say it should be possible to push the human lifespan past 200.

Jeanne Calment smoking a cigarette. Photo: Getty

There are certainly many issues surrounding enhanced longevity – from the cost of supporting an ageing population to what happens to an individual when they simply grow tired of being alive and want the option of dying.

But those moral and economic dilemmas barely rate compared to the way science has already extended the boundaries when it comes to having children.

The average age of Australian women giving birth is a little over 31 – considerably older than the average of 25 back in 1975.

There are many suburbs – usually more affluent with a greater-than-average higher education background – where more and more babies are being born to women between the ages of 35 and 40.

But it has been improvements in IVF procedures that have brought about the greatest change.

One in 25 babies born in this country – at least one for every classroom – are now conceived in a laboratory. Patients aged over 40 now account for one in every four IVF cycles.

Yet debate in society about the ethics of having children at an older age has fallen way behind advances in science.

Perhaps there is more than just a little subtle sexism at work here, too.

While some find it distasteful when older men in their 70s and 80s impregnate younger wives, dismissing it as nothing more than a form of biological vanity publishing, these ageing fathers are often lionised and acclaimed for their apparently indestructible libidos.

But there are also obvious downsides. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the oldest father in Australia – and possibly the world – was Les Colley.

Colley had his ninth child – a boy named Oswald – to his third wife in 1991 at the age of 92 years and 10 months.

Les Colley was 92 when his ninth child was born. Photo: health.wikinut
Les Colley was 92 when his ninth child was born. Photo: health.wikinut

“I remember him being sick on the hospital bed,” Oswald poignantly told SBS television earlier this year. “I was just sort of colouring away in a little colouring book…”

More recently there has been the astonishing case of India’s Ramjit Raghav, whose first child was born in 2010 when he was 94.

Ramjit, a former professional wrestler, claimed his diet of vegetables and almonds enabled him to have sex three to four times a day, no doubt prompting the recent worldwide surge in older men converting to vegetarianism.

But a 74-year-old woman and her 78-year-old husband bringing children into the world for the first time?

If you’re looking for a fight about the preciousness of life, surely this is an example of science taking a step too far and one worthy of a protest in our streets.

Garry Linnell was Director of News and Current Affairs for the Nine network in the mid-2000s. He has also been editorial director for Fairfax and is a former editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Bulletin magazine

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