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Tuesday, 15 March 2005
Page: 137

Senator WEBBER (9:45 PM) —I rise tonight in part because I was particularly moved by, and want to pay tribute to, the contributions made in this debate on International Women’s Day last week by Senators Crossin and Ferris, particularly the contribution made by Senator Ferris. I want to honour a promise that I made to myself and to her that I would add my voice to the debate about the provision of pregnancy termination services in Australia. My comments of course will reflect not only my personal view but the provision of services in my home state of Western Australia because, after all, this is an issue that is steeped in state law, not federal law. At the moment in Western Australia I think it would be safe to say that we have a fully debated, modern, fairly robust law that safeguards the rights of the medical profession and the women concerned, and that most women in Western Australia feel that they can get the help that they need, no matter what they decide to do about their pregnancy.

In discussing this issue I also want to canvass some of the myths that have developed within the debate—the first myth being the enormous growth in late-term terminations. In my home state of Western Australia—where thousands of healthy babies are born each year and only some hundreds of terminations are performed each year—there are only 90 terminations performed each year at the post 20-week mark, all of which are for sound medical reasons. One of the many concerns that women in Western Australia do have, though, about the provision of these services—and it is a concern that perhaps the federal government could do something about—is about their access to services when their local GP is perceived to be anti choice.

One of the problems I think we have in this debate is the way we stereotype people into being either pro choice or pro life. Like Senator Ferris, I do not see myself as being either. I see myself as being a person who is open to the exercise of individual conscience and wants to keep people safe, healthy and alive and to make sure that they have access to the services that they feel they need in their circumstances. Unfortunately, there are some general practitioners in Western Australia—probably 10 per cent—who refuse to give their female patients referrals to a so-called pro-choice provider. Whilst it may be a natural reaction for many to view this as respect for the GP’s personal views, I wonder whether the same will be said about those GPs who, say, refuse to condone blood transfusions and refuse to become involved in providing referrals to pro-transfusion GPs. This is something that we must address.

Other main issues that confront women who have to attend their GP when considering what to do about their pregnancy are of course the embarrassment and discomfort for a woman in an already difficult situation. She feels as though she is being judged by even canvassing the issue. This is a controversial issue to solve, but maybe general practitioners should be either required to give referrals—not just vague advice to find someone else—if it does not suit their particular beliefs or personal persuasions or, better still, make their views on this issue known before the woman makes the appointment with the GP. It is even worse in some cases, in that many GPs are still charging the women concerned for the consultation. Often those women are then too upset or embarrassed to make an issue of it. So they are charged by a GP who refuses to refer them on to the services that they require.

Another issue confronting women in Western Australia is access to the full range of choices and services when they are in this situation. Often this has more to do with women not wanting to see their local GP, particularly those in regional areas—where we all know it is pretty hard to keep a secret. But there is also the problem of accessing the service in regional and remote Western Australia, which usually involves a trip to Perth. Then there is the stigma that some people want to attach to the issue and even the consideration of the issue. That, in my view, actually causes some of the hardship, guilt and depression that these women suffer, and is often referred to by those who refer to themselves as ‘pro life’.

In Western Australia there is a misunderstanding of the law by some 20 per cent of GPs. They think that counselling means purely emotional and psychological counselling, rather than counselling about the risks attached to termination and/or continuing with the pregnancy. Finding a genuine counsellor who canvasses the full range of legal options for a woman can be difficult, with many groups advertising themselves as counsellors not prepared to do so.

These groups provide information about abortion, presenting it as an option but distorting facts about its dangers and its long-term effects. Their claims often include women being warned of the increased risks, say, of breast cancer, when reputable research organisations have examined the evidence and have announced that there is no increased health risk at all. Those groups then give incorrect information about long-term psychological and physical damage—that is, they claim that if you have a termination you will never be able to have another pregnancy. Women who are considering terminating their pregnancy are judged by these so-called ‘counsellors’ as being immoral or, worse, as murderers, when the legislation in Western Australia defines abortion after fully informed consent as lawful. That is often worse than not discussing it at all.

Then there are the organisations that are listed in the Perth Yellow Pages under the heading ‘Pregnancy Counselling and Related Services’. They all refuse to discuss termination as an option and actively work against women having access to pregnancy termination services. They are: Pregnancy Help Line, Abortion Alternatives, Abortion Grief Counselling Association, Pregnancy and Life Education Ministries, Pregnancy Crossroads, Pregnancy Lifeline, Pregnancy Problem House and the Right to Life Association of Western Australia—my favourite. Many women in Western Australia propose that these organisations should be listed under the heading ‘Pregnancy Maintenance Counselling Services’ to avoid their current inaccurate and harmful listing.

The following organisations are pregnancy maintenance counselling services, although they are not actively opposed to abortion: the Community Midwifery Program, Michelle Lewsen and the Pregnancy and Childbirth Information and Resource Centre. Then there are the organisations which are currently listed under ‘Pregnancy Counselling and Related Services’ and should be listed in the category ‘Pregnancy Termination Services’: the Association for the Legal Right to Abortion, Family Planning Western Australia, Rivervale Women’s Centre, and Roe Street Centre. Family Planning Western Australia provides both pregnancy maintenance and pregnancy termination counselling, which are therefore non-judgmental, and they should actually be listed in both categories.

I am advised that Sensis in Melbourne has said that it will try and fix this problem in the next issue of the Perth Yellow Pages and that any pregnancy related listing in the 24-hour emergency or community section of the Yellow Pages or the White Pages must stipulate whether they are pro life or pro choice. Unfortunately, listings in the normal part of the phone book will not have to abide by this. In that section, there are large ads by anti-choice groups in the ‘Pregnancy Counselling and Related Services’ category. Fortunately, these days women do not just have to rely on the phone book; they also rely on the internet, and the story is much better there. Women, especially younger women, are far more comfortable with the internet and it is a good way for them to access better education and, more importantly, particularly for rural and remote women, confidential information.

An issue I will return to later—as I feel that this debate, unfortunately, is not going to go away—is that research these days seems to indicate that teenage abortion rates are dropping and that most women now seeking termination services are in their 20s and 30s, and many of them already have children. This seems to coincide with better sex education—something I know the member for Moore, Mal Washer, has been calling on the federal government to ensure is provided and fully funded across the education system, be it publicly or privately provided. That is a call that has my full support. (Time expired)