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Thursday, 25 September 2014
Page: 7083


Senator BACK (Western Australia) (11:12): I thought Senator Day was ahead of me. I want to make a contribution to the debate on Senator Madigan's proposed bill. Let me put two issues on the table very clearly and quickly. The first is my complete and utter opposition to the concept of a termination being carried out solely because of the gender of the foetus. In that sense, I am strongly in support of the motivation of Senator Madigan in bringing this matter forward. I know how passionate he is. I probably echo the comments of almost every other speaker. I do not think there would be anybody in this parliament—and overwhelmingly in the Australian population—who would accept, concur with or agree with the notion of termination of pregnancy based solely on the selection of gender of the offspring.

The second point that I want to make is that the matter is of such importance and of such interest that I believe it deserves the opportunity for every senator in this place who wishes to speak on the matter to have the opportunity to speak on the matter. I take up Senator Xenophon's point a moment ago in relation to Senator Madigan's lack of opportunity under normal circumstances to be able to have this issue go to a vote. I am not in the leadership of the government and I am not in a position to give any indication or assurance to Senator Madigan as to what the outcome might be. It is unacceptable to me if this matter is talked out today. It is unacceptable to me if, the next time Senator Madigan has the chance to aerate this, it would be in 11 or 12 months time. I think that would be grossly discourteous to a colleague, to a fellow senator.

I want to put on record that I would not be supporting a gag motion today because I believe every senator has their right to speak on this matter. I want to give Senator Madigan my assurance that, whatever influence I might have—however great or however small that might be—in the event that, due to the inability of all of us who wish to speak to this today do not have that chance, I will be using whatever persuasion I can to make sure that the time is allocated for that matter to come to a vote. I hope that there would be respect from the mover of the motion to that effect. I have spoken to Senator Xenophon to explain to him my position, and I would urge that we end up with the best of all circumstances, and that is that we do have the opportunity to speak fully.

I now want to address a couple of points that have been raised by others, because it causes me the caution that I am expressing in terms of when we bring this to a vote. Senator Lines made the observation that she is not aware of evidence in the medical world of the number, if any, of terminations carried out solely because of the gender of the foetus. That is information that the Senate does need. If it is not an issue, then we need to know it is not an issue. If it is an issue, we need to know that it is an issue before we reasonably vote on it. The information available to me is that the records kept by health authorities actually do not provide a breakdown on why a lady miscarries, for whatever reason, be it a pathological condition or some problem with the foetus itself.

A foetus, in all mammalian species, has the capacity to somehow understand that, in some circumstances, it might not survive postnatal life. We know that naturally-occurring miscarrying, as it is called in humans, or abortion in animals, does occur because of some innate capacity or ability of the foetus to understand that it is not going to survive postnatal life. Our medical records, I understand, do not give us the capacity to separate miscarriages of the type I have described and terminations as requested or arranged by the lady herself. If we do not have that data, then we cannot possibly at this moment have the information on the intention of the person seeking a termination of pregnancy. That is the first thing I would be keen to know—what the data is—before we exercise a final decision.

The second goes to a comment made a few moments ago by Senator Xenophon. As I understand from Senator Xenophon's contribution, the way the legislation is structured at the moment would not actually allow a person to avail themselves of Medicare provision of payment in the event of termination as a result of their decision based on gender selection. I think Senator Xenophon may have used the word 'redundant' in his contribution. I understood him to say that it is redundant because such a provision does not exist now. Again, I do not know the law and I certainly defer to Senator Xenophon and the fact that he is a lawyer. If he makes that statement, all I can do is accept that he has researched it and knows it. Again, I think the Senate should be appraised of the actual fact in relation to this matter.

Others have made a contribution in terms of whether this is a state issue or not. We are talking about a Medicare benefit, which I would have thought put it rightfully into the federal sphere. Once again, if this is purely a state matter, then I would like to have that point clarified. If, because of the provision of Medicare funding for such a termination, it is within our remit in the federal sphere, I would like to know that. I am an arch federalist, as would be obvious to anybody who hears my contributions, and I do not want to see the rights of the states being overridden by Canberra. If it is a Medicare issue, it is funding centrally from the Australian taxpayer, then clearly it is in our remit.

Before I go on, I want to correct or perhaps provide further information in an observation that Senator Lines made about a new hospital in the eastern suburbs of Perth at Midland. It is a public hospital to be run by the Catholic Church. Senator Lines was quite right, the Catholic health system has made it clear that they are not prepared to participate in procedures of a nature that will terminate pregnancy. However, there is no dilemma, as was outlined. There is no need for any greater expenditure of taxpayers' money because within a few hundred metres of that new hospital there is a facility in Midland which will undertake these procedures and it is there now. I am not suggesting for a moment that Senator Lines has been elevating this matter—and I know she has not been—but I am saying to the wider community, who might have been concerned by an apparent absence of a range of medical services available as a result of a decision of the Catholic health system in running the hospital, that they can be reassured that there is such a facility down the road.

We have made enormous advances in reproductive technology over the last 20 to 30 years. We have a very deep understanding now, for example, of endocrinology, of the hormonal balances and imbalances that regulate many of the bodily functions in animals and in humans, particularly in primates. Of course, we know that, when it comes to reproductive management, it is a hormonal endocrine based system rather than a nervous system. Some people in the chamber—and, Mr Acting Deputy President, I suspect you are one of them—might be a little disturbed and distressed by the comment that I am about to make. From an endocrine point of view, in the early stages of embryonic and then foetal life it is the female hormones in the embryo and, in particular, the foetus that develop first and maleness is in fact suppressed femaleness. That is a point about which some of us may be interested at some time in the future. So as foetuses we have a predominance of female hormones and it is as the male develops that the development of the male hormones takes over and we end up with the characteristics of maleness. Oestrogen and testosterone are very similar biochemically, as indeed are other hormones replicated between males and females. Maleness is just suppressed femaleness.

I make that observation because the other great advance that has taken place in the last few years is the use of ultrasonography to determine that an animal is pregnant, the rate of growth and the normality or otherwise of the foetus or foetuses. It is incredible to see, as early as 15 or 16 days into the pregnancy, an image of the first cells of a heart beating when you are examining the patient using an ultrasound machine. I make these observations because ultrasonography has been of immeasurable benefit to us as humans, and in my own background as a veterinarian, to determine the stages of pregnancy and the normality or otherwise of the foetus or foetuses. But it is also largely ultrasonography that is used when making decisions about the gender of the foetus—which brings me back to the point at question.

These advancements will go on; and we hope they do and that they are for the betterment of the community. With regard to the concerns and reservations I have expressed, Senator Madigan is quite right to voice his concern about this issue. People have spoken today about gender imbalance. Senator Bullock spoke about China's one child policy. And only now, having actively selected boys in the past, is China coming to realise that boys are spectacularly bad at having babies. And therefore, as Bernard Salt has often commented, China is going to find itself in a degree of difficulty in the future in terms of population replacement.

Those advances will go on. But can you imagine a circumstance in which not only does someone make a decision whether they want a boy or a girl but also foetal skull size is used to medically determine what the intelligence of the child is likely to be. Skull size relates to brain size and brain size relates to intelligence. Decisions made along those lines would be abhorrent. The length of the femur at a certain stage of foetal development could be used to determine the eventual athletic ability of a child. People would regard these sorts of decisions as being absolutely abhorrent. I therefore concur with Senator Madigan in the spirit of the amendment he has put forward to the Health Insurance Act.

I will conclude where I started. I, like most others, philosophically support Senator Madigan in bringing this matter before the chamber. Secondly, it raises so many unanswered questions that we deserve to have answers on before we make a final decision. Thirdly, in my view it is the right of every senator who wishes to speak on this matter to have that opportunity. Having said that, if we do not go to a vote on this matter today, as a courtesy to Senator Madigan I want to see that opportunity for debate. I would support this legislation if it comes to a vote. I will not support a gag to bring it on this morning.