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Thursday, 25 September 2014
Page: 7063


Senator BERNARDI (South Australia) (09:34): In keeping with my usual practice I will wade into matters that cause the most controversy in this place, that being the topic of abortion.

It is a heartfelt topic. It is one on which people hold passionate views on both sides of the debate. I do not propose to cover that, because this bill is not in itself a moral judgement on abortion per se but it does render a judgement, which this Senate has done previously, about the injustice that is done when a baby is killed on the basis of its gender.

Quite rightly, we condemn these practices when we hear about them internationally. It is a matter of fact that there is an international movement through the United Nations from 1994 at the Cairo Population Conference, where it committed those signatories involved:

… to take the necessary measures to prevent infanticide, prenatal sex selection, trafficking in girl children …

Make no mistake: this is a gender equality issue because, overwhelmingly, sex selection, as it is practised in other parts of the world, is about terminating the lives of female babies. I do not know how many take place in this country, but the mere notion—the idea; the concept—that we as a civilised nation think that this is an acceptable use of taxpayers money which can be justified by any measure whatsoever I think is quite abhorrent.

Under this Health Insurance Amendment (Medicare Funding for Certain Types of Abortion) Bill 2013, the proposed new section—which I think is 17A schedule 1—Medicare benefits would not be payable if:

(a) the professional service involves a medical practitioner performing:

   (i) a medically induced termination on a pregnant woman;

      or

   (ii) a service that relates to or is connected with performing a medically induced termination on a pregnant woman;

      and

(b) the termination is carried out solely because of the gender of the foetus.

The explanatory memorandum of the bill makes it very clear that this would have a very modest—or limited, in government parlance—impact on the financial outcomes of our budget. So it is not about money, and it is not about abortion per se. It is about inequality. It is about gender equality and our affirmation that terminating a baby's life on the basis of gender is sickening and abhorrent. It is worth noting that the explanatory memorandum also states:

This Bill is compatible with the human rights and freedoms recognised or declared in the international instruments listed in section 3 of the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Act 2011.

I state for the record that I agree wholeheartedly with the premise of this bill. If the opportunity comes to vote in favour of it, I will vote in favour of it. I also commend Senator Madigan for his efforts in bringing a legislative instrument into this chamber which reflects the will of the Senate and the motion that the Senate passed decrying these gender-selective abortions. We have to recognise that in the public domain we must be prepared to put ourselves forward to discuss issues that are intensely personal and moral and that people have very strong opinions on—emotive opinions—but we have to be prepared to discuss them in the context of what is overwhelmingly right. The Senate is a unique place. It is a place where we can take considered views on many things and where there can be a conversation between senators to reflect the great diversity of the Australian population. Senator Madigan has brought forward this bill with that in mind, and hence I support it.

It is worth noting that there is very little evidence, or maybe no evidence, available to the government that suggests that termination of pregnancy for sex selection purposes is widespread or exactly on how many occasions it is actually performed in Australia. We recognise that most abortions are conducted in the first trimester of pregnancy. The horrors of late-term abortion and things like that make people feel very desperately uncomfortable—and that is essentially what we are talking about. For those of us who have had children, the gender identity of your child is generally determinable at about 18 or 20 weeks, so it falls outside of that first trimester. So we are already outside of the area where most abortions are taking place. But a baby is viable outside of the womb from about 24 weeks, and even earlier in some instances with medical support. So what we are talking about here is a pregnancy where someone has been told that they are having, generally, a girl and they say, 'I don't want a girl.' That is just abhorrent no matter what you think about abortion.

I have to note that there are experts who say that there are very few of these instances, but also there are experts who say that no doctor would perform an abortion under these sorts of demands or circumstances. Michael Permezel, the President of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said:

I don't think there is any doctor that would perform an abortion on those grounds.

The problem with that is that doctors in jurisdictions like Victoria, where you basically have abortion available on demand, can be taken to a tribunal or disciplined for failing to refer someone for an abortion under whatever circumstances. I reject that in its entirety too. I think conscientious objection and freedom of moral thought and action are absolutely important in this country.

This bill was examined by the Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee when it was referred in March of last year. The report was presented on 27 June. Not surprisingly, the committee did not make a particular recommendation, but it has been examined by a committee. In the end, we have to make a determination for ourselves. That determination is whether we think it is acceptable for taxpayers' money to be used through the health system to allow even one abortion on the basis of gender. I do not think that is acceptable. It breaches what I would say are our international obligations. It breaches the premise that many people have been fighting for in our country and around the world, and that is gender equality. Quite rightly, we condemn these sorts of practices that happen in other nations. I refer the Senate to the speech that Senator Cash made on this subject some time ago, which approached and dealt with it from the perspective of international obligations and also from the perspective of gender equality. We should have no business condoning, even implicitly or less than implicitly, these sorts of actions, because they go against the fundamental basis that so many of us here believe in.

The 2011 UN interagency statement titled Preventing gender-biased sex selection was released by 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 Organisation. They all reaffirmed the commitment of the United Nations to:

… uphold the rights of girls and women and to address the multiple manifestations of gender discrimination including the problem of imbalanced sex ratios caused by sex selection.

Let me repeat that. The United Nations and these other associated organisations:

… uphold the rights of girls and women to address the multiple manifestations of gender discrimination including the problem of imbalanced sex ratios caused by sex selection.

That is the question before us today: are we prepared to uphold the rights of girls and women? Are we prepared to address the multiple manifestations of gender discrimination which are attributable to these sex-selection abortions? It is a question for all of us today. Ultimately, as with most matters relating to abortion, if this is brought to a vote it will be a conscience vote. There will be people who have very passionate and strong reasons to vote against this bill. But I cannot imagine that out there, in the broader Australian public, anyone really thinks it is okay to terminate the life of an unborn child on the basis of its gender.

It would be interesting to determine how this Senate resolves this issue. I put on the record that, should it come to the vote, I will support this bill—not simply because I have a vehement opposition to abortion but because this goes beyond the pale of even those people who support the right of women to choose, as they so blandly put it. This is not a choice based in anything except selfishness. The choice to terminate a child on the basis of gender is perhaps the most selfish decision that anyone could take. It is saying, 'I do not think a girl is worth the same as a boy.' When has this country thought that was going to be okay?

Unfortunately what happens with legislative instruments is that things sometimes slip through the net. There are unintended consequences; there are oversights. You do not think, when it passes, that people would exploit loopholes but they do. I had some experience with this much earlier in my time in this place when I discovered that there was a loophole in the baby bonus legislation as it was then. I had evidence from people who had actually done it themselves, and from medical practitioners, that people were having terminations after a certain gestation period and, because the child was over a certain weight, they were entitled to the baby bonus. That is abhorrent. We had instances where people suggested, and the evidence supported the fact, that people had done this on multiple occasions. That sort of stuff is sickening. I was told at the time that it was not possible; it could not happen and would not happen. But it did happen, and ultimately the government was forced to address it. There is still some suggestion that it has not been entirely redressed, but we cannot prevent fraud and the misuse of these sorts of opportunities if someone is prepared to lie and deceive. That will be the case in many instances, I suggest, in the arguments we might hear today. People may say someone who wants a termination on the basis of gender will not go to their doctor and say that is the reason; they will make up another reason. That may indeed be true, and I suggest that is the reason we need to have a broader, more wholesale look at whether abortion being available for any reason the right thing for a country. That is broader philosophical outlook.

But whether it has an impact on the level of terminations or the financial requirements of our budget is immaterial to me. What is material is that we have to send a message—a strong message that is consistent with our international obligations—that we as a country are not prepared to endorse or support these types of abortions taking place in this country. We are not prepared to financially support even one abortion on the basis of gender.

I commend Senator Madigan for bringing this bill into the parliament. If the opportunity comes to vote for it I will absolutely endorse it, and I hope my colleagues in this place will do the same—not, as I stress, because they are for or against abortion but because we should all be horrified by the mere concept that even one baby girl or baby boy loses its life simply on the basis of its gender.