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Thursday, 10 May 1973
Page: 1983


Mr MATHEWS (Casey) - I move:

That all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to inserting the following words in place thereof: this House is of opinion that a royal commission, of which the Chairman shall be a Supreme Court Justice and a majority of members shall be women, should enquire into and report within 12 months upon:

(1)   How many abortions are performed each year in Australia and what are the characteristics of the women who are aborted and the circumstances in which abortions occur.

(2)   What are the consequences of abortion for women who are aborted, practitioners performing abortion procedures, police enforcing the laws on abortion and the community as a whole.

(3)   What are the courses open to women who carry through unwanted pregnancies and what are the consequences of each course for the mother and for the child.

(4)   How effective are the laws on abortion of the Australian Capital Territory, of each State and of countries comparable with Australia, what alternatives to the law in the Australian Capital Territory are offered by laws in other places and what are the likely medical, social and economic effects associated with each alternative. (5)In what ways can the incidence of abortion be reduced by improving services and facilities such as sex education in schools, family planning clinics, supply of contraceptives, pregnancy support agencies, adoption agencies and social security payments.

(6)   Other matters which the commission regards as relevant to abortion and the shortcomings in fertility control of which abortion is an expression.'

I had not thought to hear a man of the admired integrity of the Minister for Education (Mr Beazley) suggest that a proposal in which he saw considerable merit should be rejected because of what other people might think about it. I had not thought to hear the Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr Lynch) depart so quickly from the call for an inquiry on which he was quoted - not just reported but quoted - throughout the daily Press of Australia only 10 days ago. The remarks of the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Australian Country Party (Mr Anthony) bore out clearly the need for an inquiry. Both the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Australian Country Party said that changes in the law on abortion would not affect the incidence of illegal abortions. Both the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Australian Country Party quoted from the Medical Journal of Australia' of 28th April but I find it strange that both failed to quote the conclusion reached by that journal and, presumably, by the medical profession in the matter of South Australia. It said:

The number of abortions performed has been a little higher than the proponents of the legislation expected, but it is not nearly as high as pre-existing practice was stated to be by antiabortionists who opposed the Bill.

I come to the crucial point -

There is no factual evidence of non-medical abortionists continuing to practise in South Australia at present - the admission of patients with septic and incomplete abortions to public hospitals fell dramatically after legalisation.

I find it strange that the honourable gentlemen omitted to mention that conclusion.

Royal commissions are a means of obtaining information which would otherwise be unavailable, of drawing to public attention facts which would otherwise be neglected, and of reconciling points of view which would otherwise remain opposed. In this country not even basic information such as the number of abortions which are performed legally in public hospitals is available. Available information about contraception, abortion and the risks of abortion, to which the Deputy Leader of the Opposition made very proper reference, and about alternatives to abortion is unfamiliar to the women upon whom ignorance can impose such heavy penalties. Reason has given way to recrimination, and opposing factions revile each other respectively as 'murderers' and 'bigots'. We must become accustomed again to reasoning with one another and a royal commission will provide an appropriate agency for that purpose. Honourable members may vote in good conscience to reject the Bill which is before the House but nobody can vote in conscience to sweep under the mat once more the fact that the experts estimate up to 120,000 abortions are performed annually in Australia.


Mr MacKellar - Which experts?


Mr MATHEWS - The figure of 120,000 comes from the professor of political science at the University of Sydney who has gone into the matter in some detail. Political science is a relevant discipline with a statistical basis for the inquiry. An overwhelming majority of these abortions are being performed under conditions which exacerbate the dangers to life and health and future fertility which are associated inescapably with all abortion procedures and which, as I said, were very properly outlined by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. An overwhelming majority of these abortions are being performed on a basis which corrupts our law enforcement agencies and brings into disrepute the rule of law itself. I have moved my amendment to ensure that attention will be paid to these matters. I have moved it to ensure that, as a nation, we face up for the first time not only to the prevalence of abortion under our present laws but also to the disastrous shortcomings in fertility control and other social policies of which abortion is merely a symptom. It is only by supporting this amendment that honourable members can be true to themselves, to the electorates they represent in this House and in particular to the women in those electorates who will bear the burden of whatever decision is reached in this place.

I have said that experts estimate up to 120,000 women are aborted each year in Australia. If the total were only half as great, the problem would still be most significant. This is the incidence of abortion, not in any hypothetical situation which might emerge if this House were to pass the Bill before it, but in a situation which exists today and has existed for years. That situation has been created not by permissive abortion laws or by abortion law reformers, but by the apathy which keeps us from facing up squarely to the challenge of family planning or taking seriously the breakdown in fertility control and other social policies to which I have already referred.

Seventy-seven per cent of all the women who were aborted in South Australia in 1971 had not used any form of contraception on the occasion on which they became pregnant, and 90 per cent of the women under 20 years of age - a good deal of attention has been focused on them - had not used any form of conception on the occasion on which they became pregnant. As the Leader of the Australian Country Party said, there is an appalling irresponsibility involved on the part not only of the women concerned but also of the community to which they belong. The 'Medical Journal of Australia' - and I will quote frequently from this publication because it has gone into the matter in some depth over a number of issues - pointed out on 3rd February:

The vast majority of young girls seeking an abortion had had sexual relations for some months at least before conception occurred, and some had tried to obtain help, but had been refused by the medical profession. Others had not sought advice because they did not know to whom to go for assistance.

Is it any wonder that in these circumstances the proportion of women seeking abortions in South Australia who were under 20 years of age increased between 1970 and 1971 from 20 per cent to 30 per cent? As Professor Wood has pointed out:

Women, married and unmarried, religious and irrelegious, rich and poor, young and old, will risk death and legal penalty to rid themselves of an unwanted pregnancy.

A quarter of the women who were aborted legally in South Australia in 1971 gave their religion as Roman Catholic, although only 20 per cent of the population of that State are members of the Catholic Church. One in every 3 of the women who applied for and were refused abortions in that State was subsequently aborted on an illegal basis.

Variations between countries in the incidence of abortion - and they have been clearly documented - demonstrate conclusively that the ratio of abortions to live births depends not upon the flexibility or rigidity of the laws by which abortion is governed, but upon the initiative which governments show in providing proper sex education and family planning services and the support that is given by public opinion to governments in the provision of these services and their use by the community. In Britain where abortion laws are relatively permissive and in Sweden where abortion laws are relatively strict, widespread use of family planning keeps the rate at which women are aborted to between 12 and 15 abortions for every 100 live births. Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, where abortion is permitted and family planning is neglected, have between 30 and 35 abortions for every 100 live births. France, which endeavoured until recently to suppress both abortion and family planning, has 50 abortions for every 100 live births, and Italy where both abortions and family planning are still suppressed has abortions and live births in equal numbers.

I have already quoted to honourable members the conclusions reached by the medical profession in regard to South Australia. The acceleration in the development of fertility control services in Britain since 1967, the appointment of Mrs Justice Lane's committee of inquiry - and I emphasise the word Mrs' - into the operation of the Abortion Act, the quality of evidence presented so far to the Lane Committee and the public backing for the Committee's work all support the view that nations such as our own will rise to the challenge of fertility control if the abortion problem is brought home vividly enough to them. A royal commission would be the proper and productive way of bringing home to the community the facts. Can anyone doubt that the sort of commission which would be conducted in the months ahead of us after approval by this House would attract the full glare of public attention and scrutiny? What better occasion and what better way would there be of bringing home to the population of this country the inaccuracy of the assumption that being aborted is no more difficult than having a tooth out; the need for proper contraceptive procedures; or the need for us to get behind sex education programs in the schools. Are honourable members generally aware that only in the last week or so the Australian Science Education program, to which attention was directed in this place by the honourable member for Wannon (Mr Malcolm Fraser) some 12 months ago, has been adopted in the States with the omission of those sections on contraception which were originally written into it? I find it ironical that this omission should have been authorised at a time of national debate on this abortion issue. We will not begin to reduce the frequency with which women are aborted until we establish clearly in the public mind that there is a connection between abortion and the inadequacy of arrangements under which sex education is provided in our schools; between abortion and our shortage of family planning clinics, pregnancy support agencies and adoption agencies; and between abortion and our tradition of treating as outcasts from society the unmarried mother and her child. I believe that a royal commission along the lines outlined in my amendment will identify clearly the deficiencies in all these areas and mobilise behind its plans the weight of public opinion required to see them put into effect. If measures of this kind had a fraction of the support mobilised to defeat the Medical Practice Clarification Bill, the circumstances in which that Bill was introduced might never have arisen.

I hope that honourable members will not be influenced in their attitude to this amendment by the anathemas that have been pronounced upon it by the Right to Life Association. We al] have received in the last few days letters from that Association condemning the establishment of a royal commission as 'a clever device by the pro-abortionists to save from defeat a Bill which deserves, by reason of the iniquity of its measures, and the huge volume of public protest it has generated, to be overwhelmingly defeated'. I am sorry to hear members of the Country Party say 'Hear, hear' to so gratuitous an attack upon the freedom of inquiry in this country. We all have had letters in which a royal commission - the highest form of inquiry that can be instituted in this country - is stigmatised as 'a device to enable the concept of abortion on demand to be brought again before the Parliament'. I say to the officers of the Right to Life Association that this attack upon open inquiry exceeds the mandate made available to them by their members and supporters. It is one thing to articulate the conscience of a community and another to exploit that conscience. It is one thing to oppose changes in the law on abortion and another to oppose investigation of ways in which the prevalence of abortion under the law might be reduced.

I find it ironical that at a time when I was getting many hundreds of letters urging me to be present in this chamber to cast my vote on this matter, members of the executive of the Right to Life Association were at the same time urging me to stay away and not to vote. The establishment of a royal commission on abortion and related issues-


Mr Hunt - Can you prove that?


Mr MATHEWS - They are honourable men, and I doubt therefore that they will deny it. The establishment of a royal commission on abortion and related issues has been supported by the leader of the Catholic community in Victoria, Cardinal Knox, by the Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr Woods, and by the Leader of the Opposition in the Victorian Parliament, Mr Clyde Holding. It was supported, until his arm was twisted, by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition in this place. It is not for nothing that the honourable member is becoming known as 'Instant Lynch'.

Backyard masters of the knitting needle, doctors of the sort who have been known to charge up to $2,400 for a single abortion and zealots who believe that abortion can be legislated out of existence, all are eager to see this amendment defeated and the underlying causes of abortion once more swept under the mat. Honourable members I think need acknowledge no obligation to this unnatural alliance. The blood, mutilation and mental agony attendant on 60,000, 90,000 or 125,000 abortions annually demand the attention of this Parliament. We should not allow ourselves to be guided in this matter by the example of Pontius Pilate or by the example of the Pharisee of the parable of the good Samaritan. We can neither wash our hands of the. matter nor can we pass by on the other side of the road. This place will have reached a sorry pass if sound proposals are ever swept out of it on a wave of telegrams.


Mr SPEAKER -Order! Is the amendment seconded?







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