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Tuesday, 8 February 2005
Page: 110

Senator ALLISON (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (7:27 PM) —Over the last few months we have been having a very one-sided debate on abortion. We have heard almost exclusively from male MPs and we have heard how tragic and terrible it is that 100,000 pregnancies are terminated each year in this country. We have heard that women are having late-term abortions and that while there are babies being born premature and being saved others of the same gestation are being aborted. Women have listened to this debate in dismay. These were arguments they thought were put to bed decades earlier. They have not wanted to give oxygen to this damaging debate. I say ‘damaging’ because I think those pushing this issue mean to damage women. They mean to make them feel ashamed, guilty and fearful. They would have us return to the bad old days of expensive, illegal and dangerous abortions, in the hope that women will bear children they do not want. I think it is time for us to stop turning the other cheek and to recognise that this debate is not going to go away. I draw the Senate’s attention to an article that appeared in the Australian newspaper on 4 February 2005 by Samantha Maiden. It read:

Willy-nilly pregnant women ‘dumb’

A COALITION MP calling for a ban on late-term abortion has questioned why older, educated women in Australia are “so dumb to get pregnant willy-nilly”.

As Health Minister Tony Abbott defiantly declared last night he had no plans to take a “vow of silence” over abortion, leading anti-abortion Liberal MP Alan Cadman said he wanted more support for women to adopt or bring up their child, but wondered why there were still so many unwanted pregnancies.

Asked why abortion statistics suggested it was older women who were having the most abortions, not teenagers, Mr Cadman, 67, said he could not understand why.

“I can’t believe that women in this day and age are so dumb to get pregnant willy-nilly,” he told The Australian.

As I said, I think a lot of the anti-abortion campaign to date is intended to shame women. Mr Cadman’s comments go a step further than shaming women who have had abortions. He insults every woman who has ever had an unwanted pregnancy, while revealing his own lack of understanding of the issues.

I also draw attention to the article in the Courier-Mail today by Lachlan Heywood, entitled ‘MP urges refusal after one termination’, which reports that Liberal member of parliament Peter Lindsay has said that a woman should be able to receive only one abortion on Medicare. He is quoted as saying, ‘I am of the view that “Okay, you make one mistake, but there is no reason for two.”’ I am going to send both these members of parliament copies of a simple sex education booklet because they are clearly unaware of the basics. Any sex education book, including those produced by church groups, will point out that no contraception is 100 per cent effective. To say that women are dumb when contraception fails or that they should be denied access to an abortion under Medicare if they get pregnant more than once is just appalling. One wonders what punishment would be given to the men who impregnated these women. Will they be denied Medicare next time they go to their GP? Or perhaps they should get a bonus if they go off and have a vasectomy. I do not hear this kind of debate being given weight.

Other developments in this debate over recent years include threats to limit access to emergency contraception, conditions put in place around the availability of RU486, attempts to limit young people’s access to confidential medical records and the recent proposals to reduce access to abortion. Senator McGauran gained access to a woman’s private hospital records and medical records despite the patient’s refusal to give her consent to their disclosure and despite her doctor’s refusal to provide the information on the basis of doctor-patient privilege. Senator Boswell has just asked for details about women who have abortions: their ages, income, marital status, number of children, previous abortions, reasons for abortion, geographical location et cetera. Why does he want this information? Is it because Senator Boswell thinks that some abortions are justified and others are not? Is it because he thinks that some women deserve to be forced to continue with an unplanned pregnancy while others do not?

I think we need to be reminded that 80 per cent of the Australian population support access to safe, affordable, accessible abortion services, and yet anti-abortion groups have not accepted that, and they have become much more cunning in the way they frame their arguments. They are not only shaming women but also trying to make doctors reluctant to provide this medical service—and, if the report in the Sun-Herald this week is true, they are being effective. The Sun-Herald reported that a woman’s health has been put at risk because a hospital has refused to undertake a legal medical process because of the ‘political climate’.

The anti-abortion groups are, of course, still very loose with the facts when trying to make their case. They refer to inaccurate statistics on the so-called ‘abortion epidemic’ and make unsubstantiated generalisations about women suffering psychological problems following terminations and being forced to have terminations. I make the point that there are no reliable national figures on the number of abortions performed in Australia. However, we do know that the number has been falling. Health Insurance Commission figures show that the number of Medicare funded abortion type procedures fell from 76,000 in 1997 to 73,000 in 2004, and many of those procedures were for spontaneous abortions or unviable foetuses—which are included in those records. We do have a higher teenage pregnancy rate and a higher teenage abortion rate than many other developed countries—something which obviously should be addressed with some urgency. However, even teenage pregnancies have declined substantially since the 1970s.

The calls to ban late-term abortions are just as disingenuous. All evidence suggests that abortions performed in the third trimester are very rare and are overwhelmingly the result of foetal abnormalities. Those abnormalities are being identified by new technologies. A recent study of 9,000 Australian women concluded that most unplanned pregnancies in adults are likely to be attributable to method failure or inconsistent use. I think that anti-abortion groups run the line about late termination abortions because there is widespread support in the community to oppose an outright ban on abortion. So now we are hearing about women needing a cooling-off period, or needing more information through the provision of mandatory counselling, or being forced to see a scan of the foetus. I might point out that most pregnancy counselling services are run by anti-abortion groups. They do not admit that in the advertisements that are in telephone directories and the like. I do not hear calls for mandatory counselling or for forcing people to see scans for other medical procedures. These people seem to believe that women who choose to have abortions do so thoughtlessly and that they have not thought through what they are doing. The reality is that women who have an abortion are aware that it will end a potential life and stop a baby being brought into the world. They take motherhood seriously and will decide to end a pregnancy rather than bring a child into the world under the wrong circumstances.

I regard this as just the beginning of the debate. There is a great deal more to be said about this campaign which is being waged. I am extremely fearful of the consequences of this; however, it is clearly not going to go away. Women need to have a voice in this debate, and I encourage those who are in this chamber today to join with me in doing so. What we have seen in developments in America in recent years has clearly demonstrated that reproductive self-determination is continually under threat and that hard-won gains can be easily undone. In the United States, women’s reproductive rights have increasingly been restricted by the government through a series of measures. One measure is to fund and promote only those sexual health education programs which use an ‘abstinence only’ curriculum. It does not work, it never did work, and it will not work in the future. Other measures include denying women access to over-the-counter emergency contraception; introducing bans to stop servicewomen and military dependants from obtaining abortions at overseas military hospitals, even if they pay for the services themselves; introducing a federal ban on so-called ‘partial birth abortions’; and recognising a fertilised egg as an independent entity separate to the pregnant woman. Australia must not go down this path. It is very important that we have the facts on the table and that we do not get the issue clouded by arguments which are emotional and which are not related to the facts. (Time expired)