Policy learning in policy domains with value conflicts: the Austrian cases of abortion and Assisted Reproductive Technologies (1).

VerfasserGrieBler, Erich

1 Introduction

This paper addresses the question of how we can account for learning in policy domains, in which according to Sabatier's Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF, Sabatier 1988, 1998, Sabatier & Jenkins-Smith 1993, 1999) learning is unlikely.

For a better understanding of the policy process the ACF starts from the assumption that "policy subsystems" or policy domains are structured by several - usually two - competing advocacy coalitions (AC). An AC is "composed of actors from various governmental and private organisations which both (a) share a set of normative and causal beliefs and (b) engage in a non-trivial degree of coordinated activity over time" (Sabatier 1998: 103). Policy beliefs again can be divided into deep core values, policy core beliefs and secondary aspects. Deep core values relate to deeply held and rather stable "fundamental normative and ontological axioms" (ibid. 112), which often are even not reflected and span across all policy fields. Policy core beliefs refer to fundamental policy positions, whereas secondary aspects are about instrumental decisions. Both categories of beliefs are particular to a policy subsystem.

Sabatier attributes policy change to three different sources: First, changes in the "real world", i.e. changes in socio-economic conditions, public opinion, systemic governing coalition, or policy outputs from other policy domains; second, turnover in personnel; and third, policy-oriented learning. He defines policy oriented learning as "relatively enduring alterations of thought or behaviour intentions, which result from experience and/or new information and which are concerned with the attainment or revision of policy objectives" (Sabatier 1998: 104). Sabatier considers policy learning in policy core beliefs - in contrast to secondary aspects - as being rather unlikely and requiring external perturbation (Sabatier & Jenkins-Smith 1999: 123).

Sabatier presents several hypotheses, which identify conditions for and the likelihood of policy change and policy learning (Sabatier & Jenkins-Smith 1999: 124). Among other factors, he proposes that policy learning is more likely: in areas related to the natural environment and not the social world (learning hypothesis 3); if there are accepted quantitative data, explanations and indicators of success (learning hypothesis 2).

Available empirical research using the ACF has been predominantly concerned with policy subsystems, which are strongly informed by technical knowledge. Much less has this approach been used to understand policy domains that are characterised by normative or identity issues (Sabatier 1998: 100, 122).

In this paper we present two cases from Austrian life politics, which according to Sabatier's hypothesis are rather unlikely to involve policy learning, because they both belong to the social world and lack a problem perception in terms of quantitative data and explanations. Nevertheless, we can detect learning in both cases. The first case is concerned with the Austrian debate on regulating abortion in the early 1970s, which led to a rather permissive law. The second case deals with the discussion about assisted reproductive technologies (ART) policy in Austria during the 1980s and early 1990s, which culminated in the enactment of the Reproductive Medicine Act (Fortpflanzungsmedizingesetz, FMedG) in 1992, a relatively restrictive regulation.

The analysis of the two case studies is based on expert interviews with relevant political actors in the abortion or ART debates, analysis of documents such as records of party conventions, parliamentary documents, ministerial files, newspapers as well as documentation of political parties. Moreover, we used published literature on the development and implementation of the new penal code, including its abortion clause, as well as on the regulation of ART.

2 Decriminalisation of abortion

2.1 Abortion as a policy problem

Abortion is an ancient and culturally contingent practice and the same applies to its legal regulation (Mesner 1994: 9) (2). Taking up Sabatier's distinction (1998) between technical policy problems that relate either to the natural or to the social world, abortion regulations are clearly a problem of the latter kind. They are concerned with the stance a society takes regarding wilful termination of pregnancy, which often is framed as a problem of ethics. Thus, according to Sabatier, policy learning should be more unlikely in this policy domain.

The Austrian abortion debate of the early 1970s was basically shaped by two antagonistic ACs characterised by incommensurable and conflicting belief systems (Sabatier 1998: 103). In accordance with the division of post-war Austrian society into two almost equally strong camps - a conservative and a social democratic one - until well into the 1970s, the division of the two ACs followed this fundamental demarcation line (Sagmeister 1981, Edlinger 1981, Stangl 1985, Enigl/Perthold 1993, Lehner 1993, Mesner 1994). The restrictive AC consisted of the conservative Austrian People's Party (Osterreichische Volkspartei, in the following OVP), the official Roman Catholic Church, catholic lay organizations, the Austrian Chamber Of Physicians (Osterreichische Arztekammer), a great number of influential physicians at university clinics, and catholic activist groups. The permissive AC was basically identical with the Austrian Socialist Party (Sozialistische Partei Osterreichs, in the following SPO), its organisations, as well as individuals with an affinity to this party. On the whole, the restrictive AC dominated the abortion debate from the early 1920s until the early 1970s. Subsequently, the permissive AC gained the absolute parliamentary majority, won over coalition partners and acquired argumentative momentum.

The differences between the two ACs were particularly strong regarding their deep core beliefs (Sabatier 1998: 103). While the restrictive AC emphasised the protection of human life from procreation, the permissive AC was primarily concerned with the potentially negative consequences of unwanted children in medical, psychological, economic and social terms for a woman. Moreover, they demanded that women should in principle have the right to terminate a pregnancy if she considered these conditions as unfavourable.

The permissive AC criticised the existing law as ineffective, unfair and harmful. They considered it as ineffective because it did not prevent abortions. In addition, punishment does not contribute to the convict's moral improvement. They criticised the law as unfair because privileged women were able to avoid the ban more easily than socially weaker women. Moreover, socially disadvantaged women were convicted more often than privileged women. The permissive AC regarded the law as harmful for women's health and life, because the prohibition of abortion forced many women to look for help by unskilled back-alley abortionists. The permissive AC advocated fewer, planned and healthy children. While this line of reasoning had remained almost unaltered since the 1920s3, the call for female self-determination in the sense of deciding on abortion became central in their line of argumentation in the early 1970s. For example, a group of autonomous women stated:

"Going one step further, we demand that all women's right to medically optimal abortions be recognised as inviolable and natural .... Women's right of self-determination means each woman's right to decide for herself about her own body, her own life, as well as whether and when to have children, and how many children each woman wants to have. We clearly deny those in power the right to decide about us." (AUF-Mitteilung no. 11, September 1973, quoted in Perthold 1993: 98).

In the same vein, but in less belligerent language, the SPO Women's Organisation declared at the 1972 party convention:

"The current cruel penalties on interruption of pregnancy are to be amended as part of a general revision of Austrian penal law, in such a way that, besides the indication-based solution contained in the government's proposed bill, women's special conflict situation is comprehensively addressed by giving them the right to decide freely for themselves within a medically reasonable period of time." (SPO 1972: 25, emphasis added by the authors).

Thus, in contrast to the restrictive AC that wanted either to stick to the existing restrictive abortion regulation and at most wanted to allow as few exceptions from an abortion ban as possible, the permissive AC advocated decriminalisation of abortion. According to positions within this AC, this decriminalisation should be effected by a complete abolishment of the abortion ban, by generally allowing abortion within a specific time limit and by defining specific exceptions.

Both ACs emphasised that abortion was undesirable and they unanimously decided on a number of so-called accompanying measures to reduce the number of abortions ranging, e.g., from sex education, reforms of inheritance law and family law to the increase of family and birth allowances. However, whereas the restrictive AC perceived such measures as an alternative to the abolishment of the strict abortion ban, the permissive AC only considered them as supplementary (Edlinger 1983: 123).

Looking again at Sabatier's AC approach, abortion policy is clearly a case where learning seems unlikely. At the core of the debate was the basic and disputed question whether or not to decriminalise the widespread practice of abortion and to give women the right to decide for themselves on terminating a pregnancy. This question was completely normative, addressed the very centre of the two AC's core beliefs and it involved little technical knowledge. Since the basic question "right of choice versus protection of life" is still disputed today, the two ACs do not share a common policy goal (e.g. reducing the number of abortions). Consequently, no abortion statistics exist in...

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