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Second reading speech: Health Insurance Amendment (Medicare Funding for Certain Types of Abortion) Bill 2013

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 27 Jun 2013

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (17:12): The Health Insurance Amendment (Medicare Funding for Certain Types of Abortion) Bill, moved by Democratic Labor Party Senator John Madigan, is not about sex selection abortion. The Greens share concerns about sex selection abortion where it occurs. However, there is no evidence abortions procured on the basis of selecting the gender of the child are occurring in Australia or that Medicare is being used to fund such procedures. The proposer of the bill, Senator Madigan, and the submissions that we have received show no evidence that there is this problem—a very serious problem, I certainly acknowledge—occurring in Australia. We have heard reports of anecdotal incidents, but have no evidence.

We need to look at why this is occurring. Why is this bill being advanced in the Senate? It is actually the latest ugly tactic of those who want to limit women's sexual reproductive rights. For many, their aim is to ban women's right to choose abortion. Quite seriously, this bill is unnecessary, and it is vexatious. It is about whipping up unfounded fear in the community by stigmatising women who seek abortion. That is certainly an underlying result. The tactic behind this bill is straight out of the US anti-choice campaign song book. That is a very ugly campaign also, where there is a real push to stop women seeking the full range of sexual and reproductive health rights. The tactic that so many of those people are now using is to chip away at smaller targets that limit women's right to choose.

In speaking about the US, while there are many who attack women's rights in this way, there are also some heroic people defending women's rights. Considering we are debating this bill this week, we should note and congratulate Senator Wendy Davis who spoke in the Texas Senate this week for more than now nine hours to try to stop an anti-abortion bill that, if it becomes law, would force a number of clinics to close. I was inspired by her passion and commitment on this issue—something that I think we need more of in this parliament.

It is also important to note that this bill comes before the Senate the day after Australia's first female Prime Minister was sacked. While the Greens clearly parted company with the former Gillard government on many issues, I congratulate the former Prime Minister for highlighting women's abortion rights, their right to access abortion. The attacks that rained down on her when she made those comments, for me, highlighted how spot-on she was to raise this very issue. Comments from conservative MPs and from some commentators were revealing in the misinformation that is so often peddled about abortion and that is being pushed at this time in terms of how the tactics around this issue are rolling out. We were told that the abortion issue was settled, that there is no problem with the law, that it is not a federal issue and that Mr Abbott is not against women's rights. This bill shows how right Ms Gillard was to raise the issue and how right she was in what she raised. This bill is a shot across the bows of Mr Abbott.

We are yet to see if Senator Madigan will use his vote to try to roll back women's right to choose, in a similar way to what former Senator Harradine achieved. We all know that Senator Madigan could have great influence over an Abbott government as he may end up sharing the balance of power in the Senate. If that occurs we obviously do not know what will happen but, again, it is relevant to the tactics being used here. In his speech just delivered Senator Madigan spoke about fights for another day. Those were his exact words, 'fights for another day', which carry a clear implication that the senator is preparing further attacks on women's right to choose. What we know is that the former Prime Minister, in her speech on 11 June, flushed out the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, on the abortion issue.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Moore ): Senator, I remind you to refer to Mr Abbott by his title.

Senator RHIANNON: Sorry, I apologise. I do acknowledge that, when this debate blew up in early June, Mr Abbott did give a guarantee on this issue. He said that he would not do a deal on abortion with Senator Madigan or with any other senator holding the balance of power. As I said, we know that Senator Madigan could end up holding the balance of power, but we also know that some of Mr Abbott's previous comments on abortion are very troubling to many people. During the debate over the availability of the drug RU486 Mr Abbott told the parliament:

We have a bizarre double standard in this country where someone who kills a pregnant woman's baby is guilty of murder but a woman who aborts an unborn baby is simply exercising choice.

Those are deeply troubling words. They are very insulting and they are very painful words for women who make a very difficult and very challenging decision if they choose to have an abortion.

The comments that we have just heard from Senator Cash added to my concerns of whether we can trust Mr Abbott's guarantee. It is a guarantee that has been spelt out in very clever words of 'safe', 'legal' and 'rare' and, as Senator Cash said, they are words that we agree with. But, what is going to happen here? Are we going to see a situation where space is opened up for Senator Madigan to expand the tactics that he is clearly advancing to damage women's right to choose? Senator Cash's speech on this bill, I felt, brought no balance to this issue. I say that because there is no evidence about sex selection. Again I say, so that the Greens' position is not distorted, sex-selection abortion, where it is occurring, is obviously extremely serious and has to be dealt with, but there is no evidence of it happening in Australia. While Senator Cash's language about sex-selection abortion was carefully crafted, it was a speech that Senator Madigan could take encouragement from. It leaves the door open for the DLP agenda.

What is also relevant to this debate is the report that the Senate committee brought down on this bill. I was very surprised and concerned with this report. During my time in this place, which is still short and just coming up to two years, I have not seen a report where there was no recommendation. Here we have a report where Labor and coalition MPs, I believe, failed to stand up for women. There were no recommendations, and there should have been a clear recommendation that this bill should not proceed, because the evidence, when you look at the submissions, is so strong. It is clear that many of the submissions recommended that the bill should not go ahead, and the evidence that I referred to is that there is no evidence about sex-selection abortions in this country. So, the Labor and coalition senators on that committee avoided their responsibility for making any recommendations.

Many of the submissions were very clear. There were submissions from the Public Health Association of Australia, the Australian Medical Association, the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties, the Women's Legal Services Australia and Reproductive Choice Australia. These groups are opposed to sex-selection abortion and they set out a very clear case of why this bill should not be passed by the Senate. One of the submissions that I would like to refer to came from Women's Legal Services NSW. They set out some very clear evidence, which I think is particularly relevant to the attempt by some to make out that there is a human rights aspect as to why this bill should be passed. The Women's Legal Services New South Wales submission stated:

We are not aware of evidence establishing that sex selective abortions occur in Australia or that Medicare funding has been used to this purpose. We also note that the Explanatory Memorandum and Second Reading Speech for the Bill material do not refer to any specific reports or research on these issues.

They go on to state:

… the Bill fails to identify and address the potential for erosion of human rights, for example, the risk of such legislation obstructing access to safe, affordable, legal reproductive health options, including abortion.

I would like to refer this submission to my colleagues in this place and also to anybody who reads about this issue. They go through various treaties and documents that Australia has signed on to and set out clearly how this bill is inconsistent with our international responsibilities and how damaging it could be in restricting the safe options that they have set out. Some of the treaties and conventions include: the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, 1979; the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 1989; the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, 1965; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966; and the 57th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Their analysis is very useful on how this bill is inconsistent with our responsibilities under that legislation.

There is also some useful information in the Family Planning New South Wales submission that I found touches in a very useful way on the issue of evidence. The issue of evidence, and the lack of it, is something that a number of speakers have taken up in this debate. Family Planning New South Wales said:

Last financial year we had around 28,000 client visits and in the 85 years we have been operating we have no evidence to suggest that pregnancy terminations occur solely on the basis of gender selection.

So there is evidence in the other direction that highlights why this legislation is not needed.

I also recommend that people look at the submission of Reproductive Choice Australia. They have some useful information about the consequences of this bill if it were adopted, particularly with regard to the Medicare rebate, which also needs attention. In their submission they said:

Moreover, the Medicare rebate Senator Madigan is proposing to restrict is also used to fund miscarriage and fetal death; there is no way to extricate numbers of voluntary terminations from unintended pregnancy endings.

That gets to the detail of the consequences of part of the provision of this bill that needs to be considered. In their submission, they also say:

The absence of evidence that a problem exists raises the question as to the real motives for the development of this bill. What is known is that Senator Madigan and his Democratic Labour Party …are opposed to every women, for any reason, having access to safe and legal abortion.

Again, I give emphasis to that. I was making reference to that in my opening remarks: the tactics. We need to look beyond this bill and why it is being introduced in this form. The comments from Reproductive Choice Australia pin that down. The comments that they made, in terms of the attitude of Senator Madigan and his Democratic Labor Party, are from the party's own documents—from Senator Madigan's comments to the Sydney Institute earlier this year in a speech called 'Integrity in politics' and from a Democratic Labor Party document called 'Frequently asked questions'.

I certainly acknowledge that this is a very challenging issue, but the attitudes in Australia have changed enormously. By far the majority of people recognise that women have a right to choose. In 2003, the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes looked at this issue. They found that 81 per cent of Australians agree that women should have the right to choose abortion. I think that is something we should keep in mind: the breadth of understanding and support for a woman's right to choose.

There is also some very useful information in the Public Health Association of Australia submission. This again takes up the issue of how this bill would actually work. They consider the restriction on the use of Medicare to fund sex-selective abortion and how that would be implemented. They state:

Restrictions of this nature would be untenable because of the practical difficulties they impose on both health professionals and women.

They give some examples:

How would health professionals ascertain whether the abortion being sought was based on the sex of the foetus?

How would this be done without discriminating against and stigmatising certain groups of women, thereby jeopardising the health services that they receive?

They go on to say:

Restrictions on sex selective abortion in countries such as China and India have not proved successful. Moreover, restrictions on sex selective abortions, if introduced in Australia, have the potential to perpetuate racial and sexual discrimination by ‘stereotyping and racial profiling of Asian women whose motivations for an abortion would be under suspicion.’

There are many concerning aspects about how this proposed legislation can play out. There is real complexity in the medical aspects of sex-selection abortion and whether it should be banned. The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and the National Association of Specialist Obstetricians and Gynaecologists both put in submissions that, again, I urge people to look at, in terms of the implications that could arise medically if such abortions were banned, because of decisions that doctors frequently need to make. There were certainly issues that I had not understood before and I found it very useful.

So we have before us a bill that addresses a non-existent problem. As I said in my opening remarks, what is important here is that we need to ask why. The 'why' seems to be that what is attempted here is to assist to raise doubt in the community about the morality of women who choose abortions—that very right.

This bill can be seen as a stepping stone to restricting those rights and to opening up this issue and, as I said, firing a shot across Mr Abbott's bow in terms of how he will operate the power that he wants to exercise. I think there are enormously damaging implications in the bill in both tactics and the actual basis of the bill itself. I certainly believe that it is a bill that should not be supported in any way.

Debate adjourned.

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