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Thursday, 20 March 1980
Page: 901

Senator TEAGUE (South Australia) - I support the amendments of the House of Representatives. I do so on the ground that, in a Bill setting forth a statement on the establishment of a commission for human rights, we should include the rights of children before birth. I do not see this as a debate simply about abortion and I do not want to bring to this debate emotional catch cries or neat little boxes or to make accusing, name calling judgments of any other honourable senator in relation to that honourable senator's personal views. I welcome the fact that we have a free vote on these matters in the Parliament. I believe it is right for me, along with other honourable senators, to indicate briefly my personal view of the actual wording of the amendment that is before us and its implications, particularly for the rights of children before birth.

When we are setting out a statement about human rights, whether by taking words from an international covenant on human rights or by placing some interpretation on some of the words in that covenant, woe is us if we do not include some proper reference to the rights of unborn children. I believe that all of us have an abhorrence of unwarranted physical injury to a pregnant woman and to the kind of damage that can be done, whether physically or by drugs, to unborn children. I do not believe that any of us would say that human rights begin only at the point of birth. Surely we must have sympathies for a child while it is in its mother's womb. I have never been convinced that the point of origin of life can be clearly demarcated or defined. I find difficulty in accepting the view that the origins of life are at the point of conception or at some point when spermatozoa enter an ovum. I find that kind of technical demarcation discussion to be academic. It does not move me. I am rather sympathetic to the United States of America opinions that were quoted quite directly by Senator Evans in this debate when he referred to the evolution of the credibility of the life claim of an unborn child. There is increasing credibility to the life claim of an unborn child as it nears the period of birth. I, along with most honourable senators and most people in Australia, feel real ahborrence and difficulty if there is an unwarranted and fickle abortion close to the point of birth. But is it right for others to say that there are not such fickle abortions in general.

Honourable senators have said that they see some point before birth at which we need to protect the rights of children. I was moved very much by all that Senator Tate had to say in this debate. I think his interest and the interest of many honourable senators in securing, particularly in the last year- the Year of the Childattention to reducing and even eliminating injuries to children developing in the womb from the impact of drugs or from the wilful, negligent action of a mother, a family or a third party, are to be commended. For these reasons, I feel that this Bill should include reference to the rights of children before birth. As I said, I do this without putting up any neat little boxes about an abortion debate.

Various objections have been expressed about the amendment before us. Senator Missen and others have said that it is obscure. That is a value judgment. All phrases that are used for discussion of human rights can, by some, plausibly be called obscure. It is a matter of judgment as to how particular the Senate would want to be in defining the human rights of an unborn child. It may well be that in the course of the Commission's proceedings there will be a call for a more precise definition. I believe that in the light of evidence of cases before the Commission it would be our responsibility in this Parliament to come up with a more direct definition. I think that definition ought not to include the words from conception'. For that reason, I do not support the views put by Senator Harradine and, in particular, the amendment that he has moved. Senator Missen also argued that this amendment to the Bill is not constitutional. I have not been in any way convinced by the reasons that he put forward. If other rights set out in this Bill are constitutional, clearly human rights relating to children before birth are also constitutional. It has not been demonstrated in the Senate that any difference can be shown between rights for the one or the other.

Senator Harradine - The Attorney-General said it is constitutional.

Senator TEAGUE - I am reminded that the Attorney-General (Senator Durack) said it is constitutional. These two principal objections of the three principal objections that Senator Missen put have not convinced me and I do not believe they should convince other honourable senators. The third objection of Senator Missen, which was also noted by Senator Evans and, to some extent, alluded to by Senator Chipp, that the addition of these words to the Bill may lead to a swamping of the Commission with cases in the area of challenges to the rights of children before birth is something yet to be seen. I am not convinced that it would happen. I believe that there is so much substance in this Bill with regard to the human rights of others that it is a matter for the Commission to have the personnel and the time to deal with all the matters that members of the public and claimants would want to bring before it.

I must refer only briefly to some of the other objections which were put forward. Senator Evans said that such an amendment is not popular and that while we should not tie ourselves to the vagaries of public opinion, we should give attention to public opinion polls. Others have put forward the findings of other public opinion polls. I think that it is right for us to say in this debate what we personally believe and to make our decisions on those grounds, rather than trying to find out which vagary of public opinion happens to be the most vocal at the moment. I do not believe that these words compromise the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that is the appendix to the substantial Bill. I believe that it is quite within the rights of this sovereign Parliament and that it is quite within the rights of the Senate to place an interpretation on sections of the Covenant. If that were not so, we would then better determine our own form of words for setting out human rights in Australia. However, the wording of the International Covenant that is to hand is in common with the commitments of other countries and serves our purposes, except for this principal matter for those of us who care to express a concern for the rights of unborn children.

Among the correspondence that I have received, I acknowledge that the majority of the correspondence has come from the Right to Life Association. As an aside, I think I should say that I have not felt that I have been blackmailed by the Right to Life movement. In fact, not one of its members have spoken to me, I think principally because I have been listening to this debate rather than accepting invitations to go and speak with those people who wanted to put views to me personally. I have read the correspondence that I have received. I am familiar with the Right to Life material and the arguments that its members have put. Whilst I do not share the black and white, and I think often emotional, phrases of the Right to Life movement, I have broad sympathy with those who are concerned that the number of abortions in Australia exceeds reasonable numbers and, indeed, are a threat- one of the principal threats- to the dignity of life that all of us ought to feel, not only for Australians but for all people.

As I said, I do not feel blackmailed by that view, but I have received a quite contrary submission from the Abortion Counselling Service, the Women's Electoral Lobby, the Rape Crisis Collective and the Women's Refuge over the name of Rhonda Hatch of the Women's Centre here in O'Connor. Although she claims to represent those four or five groups within our community, I do not think that this letter is representative of them. It may be in the direction of some of the views of people in those groups, but I reject such radical statements as are contained in the five arguments put to me for consideration. I want to refer briefly to them. I have a very real respect for those who care about women in difficulties and who set up and perhaps are staffing refuges. I am concerned that there are persons who can counsel those who are abused by rape. I have broad support for the rights of women and sympathy for the way in which women can be abused in the community. However, such radicalisation of this issue by a letter such as the one I have received is very unwelcome. I believe that this is an unfounded submission to come to us as senators.

The first point made in the letter is that to support this amendment would be to contradict the United Nations Charter which recognises the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, that is, women. In other words, that means that we should not recognise the rights of unborn children because that would compromise the inalienable rights of women. Such special pleading, I believe, is not only illogical but is also totally wrong. God forbid that we would, by so loudly proclaiming the just and proper rights of women or men- of any human being in our society- try to use that as a trade-off to deny rights to unborn children. The second argument talks about this amendment endorsing the view that the point of conception is the beginning of life. Clearly that is not so. There is no reference to conception in the House of Representatives amendment.

The third argument contained in this letter is that decisions such as this should be left to the individual to make, that the Covenant that is referred to in the Bill advocates freedom pf thought and action and that to support such an amendment would be to deny those rights to freedom of thought and action, presumably of women or of other adults, that the Covenant endorses. I think that raises a similar difficulty to that put in the first argument. I believe that we should see individuals rightly making their own decisions, with good information available in the community, but not so as to impair the rights of others, not so as to impair even the life of children about to be born.

The fourth argument says that the legislation will not have any real jurisdiction. It does have jurisdiction in the Australian Capital Territory.

Senator Puplick - That is what it says in the fourth point.

Senator TEAGUE - It does not exactly say that. It says it would only state a principle. It does more than that. It gives actual jurisdiction to the Commonwealth. (Extension of time granted). The final argument to which I will refer briefly is that recently the National Women's Advisory Council called a meeting in Canberra which established a resolution, apparently by an overwhelming majority, in favour of the full and free access to abortion by all women in Australia, and so it is put that this meeting, supposedly representative of women, has fully and freely endorsed abortion, which would be inconsistent with the amendment from the House of Representatives which we are considering.

There are a number of glosses in that process of linking words together which leads me to reject it and see as spurious this fifth argument that is put to me and to all honourable senators. For a start, the wording of the resolution which was supplied by Senator Melzer during this past week indicated that 140 delegates were present at this conference, and I believe only about 14 refused to support the resolution. So it is true that there was a resolution put and that the overwhelming majority of women present supported it. But the wording is very subtly and carefully put together to the point that it appears that information and education should be available for the women of Australia. I will read the resolution:

In order to assist all women and girls to make responsible choices consistent with their needs, values and beliefs, and in order for them to control their own bodies information and education on human sexuality and the reproductive lifecycle should be made available.

I do not think that anyone would object to the first sentence of the resolution. It says that information and education should be available to all women. That is fine. I have no trouble with that. The second sentence says:

All methods of fertility control including abortion, with supporting counselling services, should be offered to women so that they have the right to choose.

To me, that second sentence is ambiguous. It may be interpreted as a qualification of the kind of information that is to be available. However, it could also be interpreted that access to an activity such as abortion should be entirely available to women in Australia. Such is the ambiguity of the sentence that some women to whom I have spoken about this resolution- who were present- thought it meant one thing, and some thought it meant another. The letter of submission from Miss Hatch, to which I have referred, or the letter circulated by Senator Melzer have put on this resolution a gloss that it was, indeed, a vote in favour of abortion. I am yet to be convinced that that was so. I do not believe that it was a vote, even with that large majority of women at the conference, in favour of abortion. I believe that it was a vote only in favour of information and education about these matters being able to be extended. I mention those five arguments that were put in the submission to me, and to other honourable senators, and I reject those arguments.

In conclusion, I come back to the statement made by the Attorney-General in introducing this amendment into the Senate. I believe his words to be true. He said:

The amendments will not require the Commission to take the view that life begins at conception. However, it will be an important indicator to the Commission that, in the view of both Houses of Parliament, the unborn child is to be accorded appropriate rights.

I believe that we should accord to unborn children recognition and access to rights against injury, deformity and unwarranted ending of life. For these reasons I support the House of Representatives amendment.

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