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Prime Minister rules out a parliamentary inquiry into abortion; Liberal Member suggests the appointment of an expert panel to consider late-term abortions.

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Monday 15 November 2004

Prime Minister rules out a parliamentary inquiry into abortion; Liberal Member suggests the appointment of an expert panel to consider late-term abo rtions


MARK COLVIN: When it comes to the abortion debate, will it be entrenched opinions or hard facts and figures that carry the day? 


The abortion debate shifted into the Federal Cabinet room today, after a week or so in which strongly-expressed views h
ave tended to drown out the detailed statistics. 


It's been confirmed that the Health Department has prepared a detailed briefing paper for its Minister, Tony Abbott, one of the Government's most senior pro-life highest profile supporters. 


The Prime Minister has urged his MPs to discuss abortion in what he called a "quiet and reflective way". 


Alexandra Kirk reports from Canberra. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: After a fortnight of ministers and MPs publicly airing their views on abortion, Cabinet has now laid down the law. 


The word from the Prime Minister's office is ministers have endorsed and adopted Mr Howard's views, there won't be a parliamentary inquiry, the Government won't be sponsoring any changes to abortion laws and a private member's bill is unlikely to emerge any time soon. 


This is now the collective position of Cabinet, applying to even the most vocal opponents of abortion, the Health Minister Tony Abbott and the Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson. 


The view from senior government echelons is that the abortion debate has overshadowed a lot of recent good news on the economic front. 


The Government isn't exactly shutting down the debate, which has gathered considerable momentum, but is sending a clear signal it wants to move onto other things.  


The Health Department, meanwhile, prepared a detailed briefing paper on abortion for Tony Abbott today. The Minister's office says the bureaucracy took the initiative. The Department's refusing to reveal any details, except to say it provided, quote, "factual information".  


In response to a report, Mr Abbott's had a staffer researching the issue. The Minister's office says it doesn't discuss the work of individual employees.  


Another pro-life advocate, veteran Liberal MP Alan Cadman, is pushing for an expert inquiry to establish the facts and suggest ways the Government could reduce the abortion rate, adding he believes the Prime Minister will want what's best for Australians. 


ALAN CADMAN: I don't think anybody accurately knows how many abortions take place in Australia. Nobody knows how many late term abortions there are - not any idea. People don't know what counselling is available, who gets counsel, how many, what type of counselling, is it good quality or poor quality, and what advice is there given on things like adoptions or keeping the child - all of that sort of thing. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Would you like to see a parliamentary inquiry, because the Prime Minister isn't keen on the idea? 


ALAN CADMAN: I think that a parliamentary inquiry, if there was good will, could work quite well, because it's a capacity to call witnesses and cross-examine them that's important in that issue.  


An alternative would be to have a number of experts examine it, appointed a panel - people who are objective and knowledgeable enough to know where to look. To have them present a paper which draws out the information that we need to have the options to make decisions.  


Then it would be a matter of discussing what are the best solutions. We need to carry to bulk of the Parliament with us. It's not a matter of divisiveness or people taking sides. I think people must say we can do better and find a mutually agreeable way of doing better. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: You don't think it's already reached the point of divisiveness? 


ALAN CADMAN: I don't think people have applied their minds to the narrowness of what I'm proposing and I know that other people want as well, and that is to just consider the late-term abortions that are taking place.  


You see the situation is this, that at the same age that we're desperately trying to save a baby's life, we're actually killing the baby of the same age. That is a real problem. I think it's a dilemma. It's a legal and medical dilemma that we need to sort out. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Is it a big problem in your view?  


ALAN CADMAN: I don't think it's a big problem. I think it's something that we need to know about. Find the facts and then make some decisions. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: And do you think if you make decisions on these things, then maybe you might work backwards to earlier term abortions? 


ALAN CADMAN: I don't see that as a prospect at the moment. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: And how would this panel of experts be set up? Would it need a vote of the Parliament for that to happen or would you be looking say, for the Health Minister to appoint a panel? 


ALAN CADMAN: The Government could move to appoint a panel, a group of notable Australians could decide of their volition to start doing that. But they would need government support to be able to access government information. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Have you been working on that? 


ALAN CADMAN: We've started to look at all the options. There's nothing firm at this point. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: What about the prospect of raising a private member's bill on the floor of the Parliament? 


ALAN CADMAN: Oh, some way down the track that may occur. It may not occur. I'm not sure at this point whether that would be necessary or the appropriate process. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: You're not looking at it right now? 


ALAN CADMAN: Certainly not. I agree with the Prime Minister. I think to start moving motions at this point would be divisive and destructive. I don't want destructive answers. I want answers which are going to improve the lives of people and over which there's going to be a fair bit of agreement.  


We don't want this matter to become one where people take a stance and then are locked in. My view is that people need to be able to look at the facts and then think of a compassionate realistic response. 


MARK COLVIN: Alan Cadman speaking to Alexandra Kirk.