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Thursday, 25 September 2014
Page: 7073

Senator RUSTON (South AustraliaDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (10:19): It is tremendously sad that we have to stand here today and debate a bill such as this, the Health Insurance Amendment (Medicare Funding for Certain Types of Abortion) Bill 2013. To think that anybody would make a decision about whether they were going to continue with their pregnancy on the basis of the gender of the child seems entirely abhorrent to me, as I am sure it would most Australians. Having only had a chance to have a quick read of this bill—and as the opposition noted this morning, we have not had a great deal of time to look at the details of it—it strikes me that the bill is not necessarily about abortion per se; it is more about access to a Medicare payment.

I have had a look at what currently occurs in Australia, though not with any great expertise, and I could find no evidence to suggest that the termination of pregnancies in Australia for sex selection purposes is actually occurring. If people were seeking to terminate a pregnancy on the basis that the child they were carrying was not the sex that they wished for, I am sure they would not put that down on the form as the reason for the termination.

In a global context, I am not sure that this bill is entirely contained to the matters that Senator Madigan has put forward in his explanatory memorandum. I think this is more about gender equality, if you look at it in the international space. In 2001, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Population Fund, the United Nations Children's Fund, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and the World Health Organization all issued an interagency statement calling on the world to prevent gender-based sex selection.

We need to remember when we are talking about this that in most instances in foreign countries this is not about the termination of pregnancies where the mother is carrying a boy child; it is normally directed at the mother carrying a girl child. From a gender equality perspective, I think this is a really important issue. Whilst I am sorry that we have to even be discussing this issue, like many of the issues that get brought before us in this place, it is probably best to get it out in the open and have a discussion about it. Actually airing issues and getting a public debate about them sometimes can provide the solution that otherwise would never be forthcoming if we kept these things hidden behind closed doors because people do not want to talk about them. Unfortunately, around the world in countries where the value of a female is considered to be less than the value of a male, the practice of gender-based terminations does occur.

The only information I could find at short notice related to the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. It identified a number of countries around the world where sex-based terminations were occurring. It listed countries such as China, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Taiwan, South Korea, Bangladesh, Azerbaijan and Armenia. We can only hope that in the 10 years since that conference we have seen a decline. Hopefully, some of those countries have seen the good sense of not continuing with this practice. But the cold, hard reality is the fact that in overwhelming numbers around the world pregnancies are being terminated because the family have not wanted to have a girl child.

We need to be very careful that we do not stand on our moral high ground in Australia where we have a wonderful standard of living. In a country where people are faced with a lack of access to contraception, where people are tremendously poor and where the girl child is possibly a greater burden on the family because of her incapacity to be able to go out and work, we end up with a situation where, through the cold, hard necessities forced upon people by poverty, the mother may choose not to continue with the pregnancy. Notwithstanding that, it is still a terrible thing for us to even be talking about here.

Everyone in Australia would probably have a lot of trouble accepting that someone would choose to terminate a pregnancy because they did not want a child of the sex that they were carrying. I think there would not be anybody in Australia who would not support the sentiments that Senator Madigan obviously intended in putting forward this particular bill. I would like to think that in bringing forward this discussion about this not occurring in Australia—and as I said, there is no evidence to suggest that it is happening in Australia—everybody in this place should condemn the practice of gender-biased sex selection and abortion, whether it is in Australia or overseas. It is almost impossible not to support the sentiment that Senator Madigan has behind the bill he is putting forward.

But I would be extremely disappointed if, in the process of the debate of this particular bill in the public space, the broader community and the media, there were some suggestion that in any way this government or previous governments would countenance allowing people to terminate a pregnancy on the basis of gender. I think that would be a very dangerous message to be putting out into the wider marketplace. It is also worth noting that already gender selection is prohibited in most states of Australia. My understanding is that three states have specifically enacted legislation in relation to this issue. In addition, the National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines state that:

Sex selection is an ethically controversial issue. The Australian Health Ethics Committee believes that admission to life should not be conditional upon a child being a particular sex. Therefore, pending further community discussion, sex selection (by whatever means) must not be undertaken except to reduce the risk of transmission of a serious genetic condition.

Like many of these debates that we have in this place that look on the surface to be very simple, there is often a reason for some sort of exception. As rightly pointed out here by the National Health and Medical Research Council, there are particular genetic conditions that only affect one sex.

It comes back to the debate more broadly, but we need to have a think about this. If we go along this gender-based argument that Senator Madigan has put forward, are there going to be the protections put in place if somebody knew that they were going to have a child and because of the sex of that child and the genetic condition that they carried that the child was going to have a terrible life? There is always a circumstance in which additional consideration needs to be given. In the absence of having all the facts of one of those situations in front of me, it is certainly not something that I am going to pass judgement on, because that would be particularly inappropriate.

Also, in listening to the earlier contribution by Senator Bernardi, I was quite horrified by his comments in relation to the suggestion that people were using the baby bonus and having terminations sufficiently late in the pregnancy when the unborn child was considered by law to be a person. As we know there is a time during gestation when the unborn child becomes legally a person. I think everybody in this place would be equally horrified were somebody terminating at a time to enable them to collect the baby bonus.

In wrapping up my contribution, can I say that I support 100 per cent the sentiments expressed by Senator Xenophon on this bill. Senator Madigan is seeking for the government not to fund such an abhorrent activity, but I would think that the Australian public would be pretty distressed to think that such an activity, if it were not funded by the public purse, was still unacceptable.

In acknowledging the 2011 inter-agency statement about preventing gender-biased sex selection, I put on the record again that this is about upholding the rights of girls and women not just to address multiple manifestations of gender discrimination, including the imbalance in sex ratios caused by sex selection. I am very happy to say that I could not possibly support a situation where Australia would, as a matter of course, countenance the legislative approval for gender based abortions. However, looking at the information in front of me, it is my understanding—and I will stand to be correct if other people in this chamber are able to provide me with additional information—that currently this is not the case, where people are seeking to do this.

As I have said, there are states around Australia that have sought for this practice to be unlawful. I would ask that Senator Madigan, in his concluding remarks on this bill before it is put to the floor of the chamber, advise as whether he has any particular instances to suggest that this activity is occurring. I would not like the public to think that the reason this debate has been brought on is that it is occurring and therefore leave some suggestion out there in the wider community that there are Australians seeking to undertake this practice.

It has been very interesting to have a look at this matter and to investigate the activities around the world. It just makes us realise time and time again what a fantastic country we live in in Australia, how fantastic the laws are in Australia in protecting or advising our community on the things that the majority of the population are prepared to accept or not accept. I do not think that the Australian population would accept in any way that people would seek to terminate a pregnancy on the basis of the sex of the child they were carrying.