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Thursday, 25 September 2014
Page: 7077

Senator LINES (Western Australia) (10:45): I rise to oppose this bill, and I do so on the basis that I certainly do not support gender-selection abortion but do oppose this bill because I think it represents the thin edge of the wedge. I want to also put on the record that I am not speaking out on this matter. When this matter was raised in our caucus the other day, I went straight to Senator Moore, as manager of our business, and said, 'I want to speak on this bill.' The reason I want to speak on this bill is that I am a passionate advocate of women's rights. I have always been for as long as I can remember. I believe it is a woman's right to choose and have been a passionate advocate of that position for a very, very long time. I think what we heard from Senator Bullock today, despite us having quite contrary positions on a woman's right to choose abortion, was an illustration of what a difficult decision it is for a woman when she chooses to have an abortion. You heard him talk about an extremely distressing family matter. It is not about the lovely six-year-old niece he now has; it is about the choice women make at the time they discover they are pregnant. That is what the choice is, and I think Senator Bullock illustrated what a difficult choice that is for women.

So why am I opposed to this bill? One, there is no proof at all in Australia that abortions are taking place because of gender selection. I would have to say that I was very active in Western Australia many years ago when we had the very difficult fight when Labor was in government to decriminalise abortion in Western Australia. The catalyst for that was when two doctors in a clinic in Rivervale were charged for breaking the Western Australian law by the police under Western Australian laws for performing abortions in a clinic which was widely known and well used by women. That really did force all of us in Western Australia to confront the issue of what we did about a woman's right to choose. Those clinics—and there are a number of them in the Perth metropolitan area—had been running quite unhindered but contrary to the law for many years.

So a member of the WA Labor Party, Cheryl Davenport, put up a private member's bill. And we all know how divisive this type of legislation is in our community. It was extremely divisive. It brought out ugly protests, extreme positions and quite ridiculous statements—and I have to say a lot of them were led by men. I do not wish to offend anyone in this chamber, but I have to say it is always men who seem to lead the charge for somehow curtailing women's rights to abortion. That is why it was heartening to hear Senator Di Natale speak so passionately this morning as a former medical practitioner on why he supports abortion.

After a very long and emotional fight—and it certainly had an emotional impact on Cheryl Davenport—the law was changed in Western Australia. I do not want to revisit that law. I am up for the fight, make no mistake, but I think it is settled It is a woman's right to choose. No-one is forcing women to go off and have an abortion. And it is not a decision taken lightly in any sense of anybody's imagination.

I read the report. Senator Madigan himself has no evidence to suggest that sex-selective abortions are systematically happening in Australia. We heard from Senator Ruston this morning that indeed three Australian states have outlawed such abortions, although they would be, as Senator Macdonald said, quite hard to police. So what is really the purpose of this legislation? When the bill was investigated, there were many organisations, including Reproductive Choice Australia, who agreed with Senator Madigan that indeed we do not have any evidence of this practice occurring in Australia.

Many submitters—people we should be mindful of when we make decisions about whether we support a bill, experts in this area—vehemently disagreed with the bill. They were groups such as Women's Health Victoria, the Public Health Association of Australia, the AMA and the Women's Centre for Health Matters. Then we get onto the civil liberties groups: the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties, Children by Choice, Liberty Victoria, the Women's Abortion Action Campaign, Women's Legal Services, Women's Legal Services New South Wales and Reproductive Choice Australia. These are all groups that focus on this issue and have a very valid point of view. In fact, as I said, we do not have any evidence this is happening in Australia.

Certainly, as I said at the outset, whilst I absolutely, fundamentally support a woman's right to choose, I do not support abortion on the basis of gender selection unless there are the circumstances Senator Moore pointed out in her speech earlier this morning. Sometimes there are specific gender related conditions that foetuses have, and parents may then make a choice to take an abortion on that basis.

Like other speakers on this bill have said this morning, I think that if this bill is passed it may well impact on the rights of women to have an abortion. I think it is the beginning of something much bigger and I really do agree with Senator Di Natale that this is not a bill about gender selection but about abortion. As Senator Moore reminded us, abortion is a state issue and that is really where it should remain. As I said, I was involved in the very long and emotional fight in Western Australia and, whilst I am up for that debate again, I really do think this is an issue we should not be revisiting.

Recently Anne Summers wrote in relation to this bill, and she also agreed that there was no evidence to suggest that such abortions were being performed in Australia. But Anne Summers warns us that this is a red-hot issue among the American right-to-lifers, and she believes this is clearly being imported to Australia to try to inflame the abortion politics in this country. That would certainly be a backwards step. So the question I ask is: is this bill really about gender selection? If it is, what is the evidence? By Senator Madigan's own admission, there isn't any. Or is it really about abortion? If we as a community have concerns about this issue, shouldn't we be putting our efforts into community education—about the value of children, the rights of women to choose and a whole range of things—rather than voting up a bill which would be almost impossible to police and which, by everyone's admission, has no bearing on what is happening here in Australia? If there are concerns, let's get some community education happening. Let's not put a bill in place which really does not have any bearing at all.

Given that there is no evidence of gender selection, I am inclined to think that this is about the broader issue of abortion. We know that where restrictions on abortion start to creep in they are often presented in a very rational way. Nobody has advocated this morning for a broad sweep of abortion on the basis of gender selection. We all think that is an abhorrent thing to do. But I think that this bill is really the thin edge of the wedge and that to present something as rational when it really is not begs a bigger question. Although the bill may sound reasonable enough, I think the issue is what the bill introduces and what follows on from that. These bills are often crafted so that over time abortions become more difficult to access. So let us have a look at a practical application of the bill. If the bill were passed, would there then be an additional set of questions a woman would have to answer before being granted the right to terminate her pregnancy? Would she have to undergo some kind of psychological testing? Would there be some criminal penalty if, at a later stage, it was found that indeed an abortion was performed on the basis of gender? What is the practical application here and how does that get extended to impact on a woman's right to choose? Nobody has thought that through and we do not know how it would work in practical terms. I think that it is simply something that sounds reasonable but over time it would start to impact and start to restrict how abortions are performed in this country.

I say that because I have looked at what is happening in the US. In the US the abortion debate seems to come up every few years and it is hotly contested. Twenty-two states have adopted much more restrictive practices. There are up to 70 different restrictions around abortion limits—on doctors, clinics, medication and coverage. That came from this kind of reasonable discussion and then it starts to really impact on the rights of women. I do not think that is something that people in this place support, and I would hope that in 2014 we are not going to be going down that track. As Senator Moore reminded us, the federal parliament does not have the power to regulate in this area. This is a matter for the states and that is really where this matter should be best dealt with.

We already have some restrictions in Australia. In the US, in Texas, there is now an example of where abortion clinics, in order to operate, have to have access to hospitals, and many hospitals refuse that access. In my own state of Western Australia, a public hospital in a low-socioeconomic area of Perth was contracted out to be privatised and run by the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church made it very, very clear to the state government that it would not perform any type of reproductive technology—and it is the right of the Catholic Church to make that claim; I am not suggesting for one minute that they cannot make that claim. But the question then arises: should they be running our public hospital systems? What has now happened in Midland is that we had a public hospital run by the state which performed the whole range of reproductive and family planning matters—abortions, vasectomies and all sorts of reproductive and family matters were performed at that hospital—and now those matters will not be performed by the new Catholic hospital. That has created a dilemma for the state. If an abortion clinic needed to refer a patient to that Catholic hospital, that person would not be admitted. So we already have these types of unintended consequences happening in our country. They are not anybody's intention, but that is what happens when we are not clear about what our public health agenda is. So let's get some certainty here about what we are doing.

We cannot support this bill, because it does start to impinge on women's rights. We also have to look at cost issues. If this bill were passed and additional procedures had to be put in place—questionnaires, testing and psychological testing—would the costs start to increase? We need to ask what the practical implications of this bill are. We have not had a discussion about those sorts of things. That is where my concern starts to creep in—that is, that we start to discriminate against women.

I do not think anyone in this place would want to make it harder for low-income women, in particular, to make those choices about their family and to take the really tough decision to have a termination—of course, not on the basis of gender but to simply exercise her rights. We do not want to see a bill impinge on a women's right to choose—because she has to somehow convince a psychologist, a doctor or a nurse, that it is not a gender based abortion. There are certainly no protections around that in this bill.

I would hope that we can have a rational and respectful debate on this bill. As I said, as a feminist and a supporter of women's rights, I cannot support this bill, for the reasons I mentioned. I say again that I do not support the use of abortion on the basis of gender selection. But I think the bill before us today is really looking at a much bigger question. Let's leave the issue of abortion with the states, where it properly belongs. The government say—to use their rhetoric—'We don't run abortion clinics'. Therefore, the government should not be supporting a bill that puts some control over what is happening.

The decision whether to have an abortion is a very personal decision. It is decision between the woman and her family and the medical practitioner. We as politicians and parliaments should not be interfering in that fundamental right. So I would urge people today to not support this bill. It needs to be seen for what it is, and my view is that it is really about the whole issue of abortion; it is not just abortion on the basis of gender selection. Who is to say that, if this bill were passed, we would not be here in a few months' time with another private members bill that looks to curtail some other aspect?

If abortions were happening in this country on the basis of gender selection, of course we would need to be doing something about it, but there is absolutely no proof, by Senator Madigan's own admission and by the admission of those who work in the area—the women's health groups and so on—that that is the case. In fact there was a study done—which is in the additional comments by the Australian Greens—of some 600 patients who had terminations. The study found that none of those patients had had an abortion because of gender selection. As Senator Macdonald said, it is very hard to get to the bottom of this. But we do have a clinical study before us that said that there is no proof, and I think we have to take it at face value.

So I would urge all of my colleagues in this place—no matter which political party you belong to—to not support this bill. But let's be vigilant about gender selection abortions, if we think they are going on—but there is no evidence of that. I would say that, if we have any concerns at all, the best way to combat that is through our women's health clinics, through our hospitals and through our medical practitioners—not through the blunt instrument of a bill in the federal parliament which would punish every single woman who desires to have an abortion. It is a women's right to choose, and I do not want to support any bill that I believe interferes with that right for women in this country to make what is a very difficult choice.