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Thursday, 9 February 2006
Page: 32


Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs) (10:52 AM) —It would be no surprise to most senators to understand that I am going to vote in favour of the Therapeutic Goods Amendment (Repeal of Ministerial responsibility for approval of RU486) Bill 2005. I am going to vote in favour of the bill largely because I see it as being about process. It is about who is the appropriate person or body to make a decision as to whether RU486 should be available to Australian women and who should make the decision vis-a-vis any particular individual woman. There may have been a time when it was appropriate, 10 years ago, for some ministerial oversight of this issue. But a decade has passed and we can see all around the world where RU486 is used. I believe that it is now time to say that whether this should be available in Australia is something that should be decided by the TGA—the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

In my view, the decision as to this matter is not one that should be held by any individual minister. It is one that should be looked at by experts. After that, if the decision is made that RU486 should be available, the decision with respect to any individual woman should be made by her in consultation with her medical practitioner. I want to make it very clear that my view here is just that: one about process and what is appropriate. It is not about abortion and, in particular, it is not about the current minister, who holds the power in the portfolio, being a Catholic. I read in the paper today that, apparently, the minister believes that that is the case; that some people have this view because of his particular religion. Having been caught by the net of people who support this bill, it is appropriate to make it clear that that is not my position.

I am 53 and feeling pretty good, just in case anybody gets any ideas about trying to win my seat. I am not giving that up. I recall that when I was about five my mother remarried—my father having died when I was much younger. That was 48 years ago, when Adelaide was a very sectarian city; when you were either Roman Catholic or Church of England, as it was then called. My first stepfather was a Roman Catholic, whereas we were Church of England. It worked quite well, actually. It meant that when we were at church on Sunday, we could duck out early because we had to pick him up from his church, which was in another suburb. I thought that was pretty good. We did not have to listen to the whole sermon. I mention that story to indicate that I lived in that time 48 years ago when some people did have adverse views about each other’s religion. It was not a one-way street; it was about each other’s religion. I have no time for that. I lived in a family that had two religions. The majority of my friends happen to be Roman Catholics. I hold very strongly to the liberal view that everybody is entitled to have their own view on this matter. I know there are different views amongst Roman Catholics, there are different views amongst Anglicans and there are different views amongst the broad community. Therefore, I need to put on record that my view is one about process.

Of course there are occasions when ministers have to be the final arbiter. In the current portfolio that I hold there is plenty of opportunity for discussion on that issue. In my current portfolio, I do have powers that are non-compellable. What that really means is that I can use them or not use them and I cannot be asked about them. So I have given consideration to the use of those sorts of powers. I have those sorts of powers in my current portfolio and I do not think it is appropriate that that sort of power be one that is held by a minister in this particular case for any longer time than has now been the case.

I do not want to go into all the details of the debate of who said what, but I say this: to those people who choose to list details of adverse reactions that might have been had by someone who has taken RU486, to list off deaths that might be attributed to it, their argument would carry more weight if they equally listed off the adverse reactions and deaths from surgical abortions and, for that matter, from any other medical intervention. Life is a risky business. Yes, things go wrong, but where they go wrong is not necessarily an indicator of what we should do for those for whom it will go right. There is no magic wand to make everything right in every issue everywhere. Let us understand this: someone who is going to use this, if it becomes available, is going to do so in consultation with their doctor. They are not going to just roll up to the supermarket and buy this pill and pop off into the desert where there are no other health facilities available and give it a go. That is a ridiculous proposition. That is the concept being alluded to with regard to the risk that women will face if they do not have the services available to them. This decision will be made by a woman, if it gets to that, if it becomes available, in consultation with her medical practitioner.

I was at a dinner last night where there were men and women of differing views on this issue. One of the men said that he was opposed to abortion and was going to oppose this bill because he thinks that, if the bill passes, RU486 would be available and—wait for it—he does not want abortion to be any easier and a pill would necessarily be easier. Well, hello! Clearly, he has never had the mindset of it ever happening to him. It is not going to happen to him because he is a boy. I encourage people who think that it is easier to listen to some of the people who are opposed to the bill, who in fact argue that it will not be easier; that it will be harder. It just shows you the banal level of some of the debate that some people are prepared to enter into in relation to this matter.

I want to spend some time briefly on the language and nomenclature that has been used in this debate. People refer to themselves as ‘pro life’. I would like the pro-life people to get another name because, frankly, that describes everybody in this place. It certainly does. I do not know anybody who is against life. Equally, some people refer to those who would take the decision from the minister and put it where it belongs—where it is made on every other medical intervention—as being pro abortion. Let me tell you that I do not know anybody who is pro abortion. Nobody thinks it is a good idea. Nobody wants anybody to be in that position. But the people who call themselves pro choice, and that is the position I am in, want people to make that moral decision themselves. That is the difference. So I regard myself as pro life. I equally regard myself as pro choice.

We see this in another way. For example, a party that sits on the other side calls itself ‘The Greens’. That is meant to seduce people into believing that their policies are all about the environment. If you look on the website, you see that that is not the case.

I want to make that clear. Every woman that I have ever spoken to about that matter hopes that they, their daughters and their friends are never in this position. They are not properly described as pro abortion. That is designed simply to aggravate and is used as a pejorative to put people down. It follows that, if some people can claim to be pro life and exclude others from it, the inference is that the others do not care about life. That is not true.

There are some very interesting views about when life really begins. There are differences of opinion about this amongst the churches. Some people say that life begins as soon as an egg is fertilised. Others have a view that it is a few more days. Still others have a more religious, as opposed to scientific, view that it is when something called ensoulment takes place. Those of you who have read anything about this will understand that having a soul is what is meant to distinguish us as humans from animals—even though you sometimes look at the way humans behave and think that that cannot be right. Sometimes we do not behave as higher beings than the other animals that we share the planet with. Some churches have a view that ensoulment does not take place until up to three months. My own view with respect to my job here is that it is not my place to tell somebody through legislation when they ought to think that happens. It is a decision people have to come to themselves.

I note, incidentally, that some of the churches who are opposed to any form of abortion can somehow come to the concept of what is referred to as a ‘just war’. I am at a loss to marry the two. If you can come to a view that there can be a just war, why can there never be a just abortion? I cannot see it, and I have never had it answered.

I understand that there are very different views here. I say this to everybody: whatever their beliefs about the existence of a god or their particular religion, they are entitled to keep their views to themselves and make them private. My personal view is that religion is debased when it is cast around and used as a political football. My strong belief is that any god that I have ever heard about or read about is looking for converts, not conscripts. No god that I have read about or heard about needs this place to do his or her work. Any omnipotent being must be more powerful and stronger than the Senate—shattering though that may be to some. If you have a belief in a more powerful being, you will understand the point I am making. It is not for us to legislate.

I think the simple version of my view in this respect is that God—whatever your belief about a god is—is looking for converts, not conscripts. You cheapen any religion when you conscript people in to a particular moral view. A moral view has its merits because it is held in the heart and held deeply, not because it is legislated for. That is my position: I think God wants converts, not conscripts. I think this decision does belong with the experts, because in that way, if it is then allowed in Australia, it does give a woman the opportunity to make a proper choice for them about what is appropriate for that woman, wherever she may be, in consultation with her medical practitioner, as to the services that are available to her. I can see no place for this chamber to be used to legislate for people’s particular views.

Having said that this is about process and not about abortion, I should at least conclude by saying this. We all have different views about a wide range of things that are very personal. I have a very strong view about the availability of birth control in Third World countries. I cannot understand how some people, in the name of their religion, can argue in Third World countries that birth control should not be available. I would like to take them back there and make them live the life of a family who has more kids than it can feed, more kids than it can get health care for. I would like them to go to the funerals of the kids that die because they were brought up in terrible conditions. I would like them to sit with the people who die of AIDS because, while birth control may have been available, it was not used because it was seen as a sin.

We all have strong views. We can all colour them up. Believe me, I could colour up what I have just said a lot more strongly than I have. But I think what is appropriate is that we simply air our views politely and civilly, as we ought to in this place. I conclude by coming back to what was going to be the final point I made—that is, that your religious and moral views are your own and it is not for this place to legislate on those.