By Patrick Goodenough CNSNews.com International Editor February 14, 2006 (CNSNews.com) - An Australian lawmaker has set off a storm after comments tackling two subjects many consider taboo -- the country's high abortion rate and fears of a Muslim "takeover." Citing estimates of 100,000 abortions a year, Danna Vale, a member of Prime Minister John Howard's ruling coalition, told a press conference that Australians were "aborting ourselves almost out of existence." Vale linked the concern with worries about the growth of Australia's Muslim community. She recalled reading a newspaper article in which an imam from a leading mosque in Sydney was quoted as saying Australia would be a Muslim nation within 50 years. "I didn't believe him at the time, but you know when you actually look at the birthrates and when you look at the fact that we are aborting ourselves almost out of existence by 100,000 abortions every year ... you multiply that by 50 years, that's five million potential Australians we won't have here." Asked whether Australians should therefore be concerned about abortion "in case we become a Muslim nation," Vale added: "I'm talking about the ramifications it actually has for the community and the nation we'll become in the future." Vale and three other female lawmakers were addressing the media on their opposition to a bill on the RU486 abortion pill which has triggered emotional debate in parliament and the media. Last week the Senate voted for the bill, which removes the responsibility for approving importation of RU486 from the government's health minister -- the current situation -- and hands it to the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), a bureaucratic expert structure similar to the FDA. If passed, the measure is expected to make it easier for women to get hold of the controversial drug, which is now effectively banned. Some of those arguing for the change are particularly unhappy at the fact that the current health minister, Tony Abbott, is a pro-life Catholic. One opposition Senator caused a stir during the debate by wearing a t-shirt bearing the words: "Mr. Abbott, get your rosaries off my ovaries." Howard called the slogan "offensive" and said it was ironic that at a time "when everybody is being lectured about being sensitive to Muslims in our community" -- a reference to the Mohammed cartoon uproar -- a lawmaker was sneering at a Catholic devotional practice. The debate moved Tuesday to the House of Representatives where political parties are allowing their members a rare conscience vote. The bill passed in the Senate by 17 votes, but a closer result is expected in the House. 'Racist' Vale's remarks sparked controversy, with some coalition colleagues distancing themselves from them, the opposition Labor leader calling her "an authentic representative of this government's growing extremism," and Islamic leaders describing the comments as racist and xenophobic. While the "us" and "them" implication, "Australians" versus Muslims, was the most sensitive element of what local media described as a "gaffe," available statistics do bear out some of Vale's concerns. Although a huge country, Australia has a population of just 20.4 million, and about 250,000 children are born each year. A further 100,000 pregnancies end in abortion. Australia's total fertility rate (TFR) has dropped from 3.5 in 1961 to 1.7 in 2005. (TFR is the average number of babies born to women during the reproductive years of 15-44.) The Australian Bureau of Statistics projects that by the middle of the century, the total population will be somewhere between 24.9 and 33.4 million, depending on differing assumptions regarding fertility rates, migration levels and life expectancy. At the end of World War II, fewer than 3,000 Muslims lived in Australia. That number grew to around 22,000 in 1971 and - following an influx from Lebanon after the outbreak of the civil war - reached some 281,000 in 2001, when the most recent census was conducted. Today estimated at more than 300,000, the Muslim population still remains a small percentage of the total. But according to the Department of Foreign Affairs, the 2001 census revealed "a remarkable rate of growth" in Australia's Muslim population -- "an increase of some 40 percent in five years, while the Australian population as a whole only grew by 5.7 percent in the same period." In a 2002 article discussing government policy on fertility, federal Treasurer Peter Costello provided figures to back an argument that factors like religion and ethnicity were significant when discussing problems of declining fertility. Citing 1996 census figures, Costello said women aged 15-30 who describe themselves as Christian had given birth to an average of 0.39 children, while the figure for Muslims was 0.75. For women over the age of 30, the figures were 1.9 for those of no religion, 2.4 for Christians, and 3.0 for Muslims. Ethnicity also played a role, he said: Fertility rates for Australian women born abroad showed that the highest were from Muslim countries -- Lebanon (3.54), Turkey (2.54) and Egypt (2.49). According to 2005 estimates published in the CIA World Factbook, the countries with the highest TFRs are mostly Muslim and African ones. Niger, a mostly Muslim country in north-west Africa, heads the list with an average of 7.55 babies per woman of childbearing age. Of the 35 nations topping the list - each with an average TFR of five children or more - 20 are Islamic or have an Islamic majority.