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Tuesday, 8 March 2005
Page: 99

Senator FERRIS (7:22 PM) —Now that International Women’s Day is 30 years old it is understandable that many women might take for granted the achievements that have been made over those years. Not least of these is the right to family planning—the opportunity to make an informed choice about whether to have a baby, when to add to the family and when to choose not to proceed with a pregnancy. This is a choice young women now take for granted, and so they should, but it was a long time coming.

In fact, 30 years ago, when we were all celebrating the first International Women’s Day, family planning was still very much a whispered choice, discussed in hushed tones behind closed doors and with little or no help from other family members. A sense of shame often pervaded this issue. There was certainly limited choice. Pregnant unmarried girls had little option: the search for a cooperative doctor, a risky backyarder, the public shame of a few months in the basement of a public hospital and the inevitable adoption, or a hurried visit interstate for a few months. They were the days of high-risk decisions, little choice and public shame.

I had some experience of those bleak days when a young flatmate of mine became pregnant to the local stock agent, a deeply religious father of six, who walked away from her only minutes after she broke the news to him. She was devastated, not surprisingly, and her first thought as an only daughter, a churchgoer, was to end the pregnancy with as little disruption to her professional life was possible. Sadly, her choices were limited and we found ourselves one wet Friday night driving a couple of hours to a town where the local pharmacist had agreed to help in a less than salubrious back room in his shop. For this service he wanted in cash more than each of us earned in a month. I can still remember that old man and his dingy back room. After a couple of minutes my flatmate decided it was an unsafe choice that she was not prepared to make. He, of course, facing not only the loss of cash but also the compromise of an illegal service offered but not accepted, tried to block our path, shouting, threatening and bullying two very frightened young women.

My friend then found herself making a series of other less palatable choices, telling her parents and disappearing to the shame of a cold hospital basement where this talented young woman washed laundry until the child was born and adopted. Sadly there was to be no happy reunion for her and her daughter—she was killed in a single car accident just months later. Australia must never return to those shameful days. Our women must always have the chance to make an informed choice with their medical adviser, their families, their partner, their support network—whoever they choose. And they must be free to make that choice without coercion and without compulsion.

A few days ago I stumbled upon a Weekend Australian Magazine article that I had torn out and diligently filed away. It was called ‘The body politic’ and was written in 1998. The article outlined the extraordinarily sad story of a devoted mother of three’s decision to pursue an abortion, and the bitter public debate that ensued. Why, some seven years later on a day set aside to celebrate women’s achievements, has this debate yet again been politically torched? Surely our job here is to ensure that we remain a nation where people are free to make their own choices within a legal framework that makes sure these choices are safe, accessible and of a high quality. And surely the framework should also seek to overcome the barriers caused by language, culture, ethnicity, religion, disability, sex, age and even geographical location.

I am pleased to say that in my home state of South Australia, the only state in Australia with a fully publicly funded abortion facility, there have been vast improvements. Last week I visited a facility in Adelaide which offers the only publicly funded family planning services in Australia, where women and their families or partners can make informed choices about how they can best deal with an unplanned pregnancy. Each year this centre provides about 3,000 of South Australia’s 5,000 abortion services, with about 48 per cent of referrals coming from doctors and 18 per cent from family and friends.

The caring and highly skilled staff explained to me that the only theme that applied at every stage was the emphasis placed on providing informed and safe choices. The choice to pursue an appointment is the woman’s alone, and the one-week delay that applies between her call and the appointment could be considered a cooling-off period. During the appointment, women are offered an opportunity to discuss and access information about a range of issues, including continuing with the pregnancy and adoption, again with the emphasis on informed choice. However, only 10 per cent of women do not immediately proceed to end their pregnancy. In fact, a large number want to ensure the procedure can be carried out immediately so they can be at home when their other children come home from school. Many of these women are also coping with the demands of work, a country lifestyle and difficult personal circumstances including domestic violence and substance abuse.

An ultrasound scan is a prerequisite part of the procedure, but again it is the woman’s choice to view the scan. Some do, some do not; some ask for a copy of the image and some come back later to ask for a copy of the image after they have thought about it. After-care services in the centre, including a telephone counselling hotline and post-operative follow-up, are again provided as options. Appointments are then made at the woman’s request. Importantly, follow-up counselling is available for all women, but only about 10 per cent of women choose to access this counselling.

This was a very sad place. It was quite crowded. There were many people sitting in the waiting room. Sadly they did not have a great deal of privacy. The facilities in this centre could be improved, but the money that is given by the South Australian government for the service is not generous and the staff there have decided to use the funds available to increase the options for women rather than to modernise the waiting room. However, it was one of the few places I have been to where people chose not to establish eye contact with one another. I would hope that no member of my family would ever find themselves needing to go there. But, if they did, it would be a very safe choice for them, and that is the way I think all thinking people want that choice to be provided.

I do not promote abortion in any sense at all, and I do not believe that I am likely to meet anyone who does. But in passionately supporting informed choice I am neither pro-life nor anti-life. I describe myself not as a feminist but as a commonsense woman who wants, on the 30th anniversary of International Women’s Day, the choices for Australian women to be free from compulsion and free from coercion. I simply want to offer other Australian women the choices that they now have and not to return to the shameful, secret and unsafe days of the past.