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Tuesday, 8 March 2005
Page: 114

Senator CROSSIN (8:28 PM) —I rise tonight to provide a contribution to a debate that has been going on not only for the last 12 months but for many decades in this country. It has been rehighlighted in the last few months. I have chosen International Women’s Day to put on the public record my views about the matter of abortion. I want to begin by saying that I come from a family of very strong women—I had two very strong grandmothers and a very strong mother—who certainly do not resile from their principles and who have always upheld strong beliefs in a range of matters. I have to say we are never shy petals in putting forward these beliefs. I have bred three wonderful women in Melinda, Amanda and Kate, who I know will follow in the footsteps of my grandmothers. They, too, have never been too backward in saying what they think about a particular issue. I am very proud of that and could probably at times be accused of encouraging it.

I think it is the strength of your family inheritance and a sense of purpose which brings particular people to this parliament. For me, one of the issues in coming to this parliament was that there was a need to raise the issues associated with the legislation and the deliberations in the federal parliament that affect women. The issue of abortion is an issue central to women and highlights why quite a number of us are here.

I know that Senator Moore spoke earlier about Senator Ferris’s speech in the chamber this afternoon. She spoke about International Women’s Day. Senator Ferris started that speech by making a comment about spiders and the fact that there was a matter of choice. In this country there is choice for a whole range of citizens. It is a signal of our freedom and of the opportunity that we have in this country. We have choice in a whole range of areas. We can choose whether to smoke or not to smoke and whether to take drugs or not to take drugs. We can choose what school we want to go to and what school we do not want to go to. We can choose what doctor we go to and what doctor we do not go to. But women, particularly, have a very special choice: whether or not they have a child.

The status report on women which was tabled today, which Senator Patterson launched at lunchtime, outlined some of the choices and responses that people have about these areas. Of course, it was a report about women. We have choices about body image, choices about our sex lives and choices about reproductive health. I think the recent debate about abortion hides behind the concern that more information is needed. We have had people in this parliament tabling questions on notice, as they are quite right to do. We have had people suggesting that more statistics ought to be kept. But what I believe really seeks to push the agenda is a sense of others trying to impose their morality on women’s rights—to move women’s rights and their right to choose off the agenda. It is an attempt to limit the choices that women have and to take control over what a woman should decide: what is best for her, both mentally and physically. To suggest that a man should tell me, as a woman, what I should and should not do when it comes to how I regulate my body in terms of its physical or mental wellbeing is something I find offensive, and I do not agree with it. I know that 81 per cent of Australians actually support the right of women to have that choice and in fact support the right of women to choose to have an abortion if they want to.

Let me spend some time putting some facts on the table. Abortions can be performed in public hospitals, private hospitals, day clinics or doctors’ surgeries—in other words, in private clinics. We know that, if an abortion is performed on a public patient in a public hospital, there is no Medicare rebate payable and the data on the total number of abortions performed will only be available if the public hospital or state government releases it. If an abortion is performed on an admitted patient in a private hospital or on an admitted private patient in a public hospital then the patient may be eligible for a Medicare rebate equal to 75 per cent of the schedule fee. There are two Medicare item numbers which relate to procedures that can be used for abortion. Procedures to which these two items relate are also used for other purposes, such as dealing with the consequences of a spontaneous miscarriage. There is no way of telling from the Medicare data what the purpose of the procedure was.

According to Parliamentary Library research, from information received from the Department of Health and Ageing, private health insurance legislation and regulations do not make specific reference to pregnancy terminations. It is a condition of registration that private health insurance funds must provide coverage for all items on the schedule of Medicare benefits as long as they are performed in registered hospitals or day centres. The federal government does assist with the funding of abortion in four ways: it pays Medicare rebates, it funds the Medicare safety net, it funds the private health insurance 30 per cent rebate and it makes a Commonwealth contribution to the funding of public hospitals.

How many abortions are there? As far as we know, only South Australia collects comprehensive data. We do know, however, that the number of Medicare rebates for the two procedures that can be used for abortion is often used publicly as if it is the number of abortions. However, this number gives an inaccurate picture. The procedures are used for purposes other than abortion. The Medicare rebates do not apply to public patients in public hospitals. One study has indicated that up to 10 per cent of women who would be eligible for a Medicare rebate for an abortion do not claim—presumably because of an extreme sensitivity about confidentiality. Also, these Medicare items are not used for third trimester abortions because the procedures are not suitable. In 1996, the NHMRC stated that around one in every four known pregnancies in Australia is terminated. That is down from one in every three pregnancies in the 1930s. Of course, that was when contraception was not readily available.

But I think we ought to look at who has an abortion these days, and why. What we can tell from the statistics, surprisingly enough, is that most abortions are performed on the 25 to 34 age group. The past decade has seen a dramatic ageing of the average abortion patient. The proportion of Medicare funded abortions done for teenagers has actually fallen by 12 per cent. The proportion of patients over 35 rose by 37 per cent. In every year since 1995, abortion patients have been more likely to be over 35 than under 20. In other words, what we are seeing is a trend towards older women, rather than teenagers, having an abortion. Data from Sydney, for example, shows that the number of abortions for women over 40 increased 250 per cent between 1992 and 2002 and that an abortion patient was 40 per cent more likely to be married or in a de facto relationship in 2002 than in 1992. I think they are some interesting statistics that, if I have time, I will come back to.

We also know that in all states and territories, except the ACT, the practise of abortion is regulated through the relevant criminal code. Of course, in the ACT it is in the health code. The procedure is not regarded as illegal if it is undertaken to protect physical or mental health. We know that access to safe abortion has reduced the high rates of women suffering negative outcomes. Before 1971 abortion was a major cause of maternal deaths in Australia. The World Health Organisation reports the risk of maternal death from unsafe abortion is 100 to 500 times greater than the risk under safe conditions. The impact of limited access to abortion through Medicare will have major implications. Fewer women will be able to afford the procedure and statistics show us that that will lead to more maternal complications.

We have a responsibility to ensure that there is equal access for women to all procedures in our health system. We should not provide a gateway of morality. Women have a right to control their body and we, as a parliament and as legislators, should support and respect this. Women make decisions about their fertility, planned or unplanned pregnancies, regardless of their situations, their views and their beliefs. They know their situation, they know their beliefs and sometimes the decision is not an easy one. But we should ensure that what we are doing is actually supporting those women who choose to make that decision. We should have a look at the current debate. We should question whether or not we provide enough sex education in our schools, whether we fund family planning clinics adequately and whether or not we should all be pushing an agenda that removes the abortion procedure from the Criminal Code and moves it into the health code, where it really belongs. (Time expired)