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STANDING COMMITTEE ON FINANCE AND PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION - 29/10/2008 - Item 16525 in part 3 of schedule 1 to the Health Insurance (General Medical Services Table) Regulations 2007

Estimates & Committees
Sarah Hanson-Young 29 Oct 2008

CHAIR -Thank you. Senator Hanson-Young.

Senator Hanson-Young -Keeping in mind that I understand that you have moral objections to the procedures, what is your response to the ideas-and a number of people have put this in their submissions to us-that disallowing this particular Medicare item will not necessarily stop women from going through this process; in fact, it may simply push those terminations later and later? How would you respond to that? If the concern is with doing it this late in the piece anyway, how do you respond to the fact that, if a woman needs to do this, it is a matter of either having to sit on a waiting list for another six to seven weeks before she can get in to a public hospital, or having to save up that money to go and get it done privately?

Mr Shelton -For the sake of $267, given that these procedures vary in cost-there are various estimates-from well over $1,000 to $4,000, I do not think the cost that is attracted by this is really going to be a serious impediment to most women, should they be determined to proceed with-

Senator Hanson-Young -Do you seriously think that $4,000-

Mr Shelton -Sorry-$267, when the total cost is $4,000, I do not think is going to make a huge difference.

Senator Hanson-Young -What about the waiting list? If somebody has been advised by the doctor that the child that she is pregnant with is not well, the child has organs growing on the outside of their body, and she is not responding well to the pregnancy and her own life is in danger, does her being on a waiting list for another six to seven weeks not matter to you?

Mr Shelton -As we said, we object to abortion being carried out where there is no lethal abnormality, and we should not be trying to define-

Senator Hanson-Young -But that is exactly what this disallowance is about.

Mr Shelton -what sort of people are fit to live in this country.

CHAIR -Senator Hanson-Young, with all due respect, if you ask a question, you should at least have the courtesy to let the witness answer, and then you can ask another question.

Mr Shelton -As I said, our concern is the use of abortion for eugenics or for psychosocial reasons. We have come to the view-and this would probably not be a view shared by all pro-life groups-that, if a woman has a foetus with a lethal abnormality or her life is at unequivocal risk, and these things can often be diagnosed accurately these days, those should be the only exceptions. We know that in this country those instances are not the overwhelming reasons abortions are performed.

Senator Hanson-Young -The evidence that we have been given for this particular item, the 520 abortions that were performed last year, is that that is why they were performed.

Mr Shelton -Lethal foetal abnormality?

Senator Hanson-Young -Yes, that people do not-

Mr Shelton -Is that the evidence that you have heard today, Senator, with respect-that the majority of those abortions are occurring-

Senator Hanson-Young -Yes, that people make these decisions based on the medical assertions, not because of some psychosomatic determination. That was the evidence that we were given.

Mr Shelton -I was not suggesting that. You were asserting that the evidence you have heard today-and I have only heard bits of it-is that most of those second trimester abortions occurred because of lethal foetal abnormality.

Senator Hanson-Young -The evidence that we were given was that these 520 abortions that were done last year, and it has been continuing to go down-

Senator BARNETT -Could you advise the committee which 520 you are talking about?

Senator Hanson-Young -They were the ones that were listed in the department's records.

Senator BARNETT -It is 540 for the year to date to August, if they are the figures you are talking about.

Senator Hanson-Young -Okay, 540. I am sorry.

Mr Shelton -I think they are somewhere around 800 a year.

Senator BARNETT -Last year it was 790.

Senator Hanson-Young -So under 600. I do not think it is the numbers that particularly matter anyway. The evidence that has been given by a number of people is that these decisions are made because there is a medical reason. It is not made on a moral judgement. A woman and her family do not make this decision flippantly. Yet you are saying we should be not allowing this to happen and we have blood on our Medicare cards because of a moral judgement.

Mr Shelton -If it is a moral judgement to suggest that some people are fit to live and some are not because of their level of ability or disability, so be it. That is a moral call. May I offer a personal anecdote, chair, in response to the senator's question?

Senator Hanson-Young -I have another question and then if you have time to give me examples you can. Putting your moral objections aside-

Mr Shelton -Whose morals?

CHAIR -Mr Shelton, please let the senator ask her question. Then you will have the opportunity to respond and give your anecdotal evidence.

Senator Hanson-Young -And this is to Mrs Joseph as well because you are presenting together.

CHAIR -They are not presenting together. It is just the way that the hearing went. We have two witnesses to try and best use the time. They are separate identities.

Senator Hanson-Young -Mr Shelton, you can answer and then, Mrs Joseph, you can answer. Putting your moral objections to pregnancy termination aside, what is actually the concern with allowing people to access this particular item under Medicare?

Mr Shelton -The concern is that people have a conscientious objection to abortion being performed in the second trimester, given the brutality of that method and the obvious pain that that causes to the fetuses. Some members of the community feel that for that to happen because of disability, for psychosocial reasons or for economic reasons is wrong and yet they are forced to pay for it-we have no choice. That really plays on the consciences of many of us who believe that children, regardless of their able-bodiedness or otherwise, have every right to enjoy life and the things that we all enjoy. We know indeed in many cases they can do that, and we also know that there are instances where abortions are performed in the second trimester not for reasons of any abnormality at all but for cleft palates and even for economic reasons, as you have all heard at this hearing. That goes to the heart of our objections. If the parliament and the democratic processes say that we will continue to make these brutal practices legal and treat unborn babies in a way that is different to the way we treat animals, if that must be the case, please do not force us to pay for it.

Senator Hanson-Young -That would be the same argument-

CHAIR -Did you want Mrs Joseph to answer that question first?

Senator Hanson-Young -In a moment. I will respond to Mr Shelton first, thank you very much.

CHAIR -I remind everyone that we are way behind schedule. We have another senator who has questions, so could you summarise what you are saying. I thought you asked that first question to both of them.

Senator Hanson-Young -Would you agree, Mr Shelton, that is the same argument people would take for not funding the Iraq war-moral objection, blood on the hands of the taxpayer.

Mr Shelton -Absolutely.

CHAIR -I have to draw the conclusion that that question is way outside the terms of reference and the reason that we are here.

Senator Hanson-Young -No, it is not.

CHAIR -I am ruling that out of order. Do you have another question that you would like to put forward? We are running out of time and there are other people who want to ask questions.

Senator Hanson-Young -Mrs Joseph, could you please answer?

Mrs Joseph -Could you repeat the question?

Senator Hanson-Young -The question is, putting your moral objections aside from abortions, can you please explain what the other objections are to this particular matter.

Mrs Joseph -The objection is that this funding is taking place in contravention of what we have promised under the international conventions. Also, it is taking place without scrutiny. I know we have had so many questions today about the statistics, and yet what is very clear is that the statistics are not available. No-one can tell me how many of the children who are disappearing, who are being disappeared, because they have been found to have Down syndrome have been paid for under this item. As soon as you come to ask, Medicare says, 'It's privacy,' or the doctors say, 'No, it is a private matter between the woman and the doctor.' Yet I know that right from the beginning of the foundation of international human rights law, privacy was not allowed to count when it came to any suspicion that there was human rights violation. You were not allowed to say, 'Oh no, we can't investigate that because it is private.' If there is a suspicion that even one child with Down syndrome is being aborted and being paid for by this legislation, this Senate, the Australian government, has to investigate it and punished it if it is happening. It is not enough to just say, 'Oh, privacy, privacy.' I think you can all quit asking; do not ask anymore. For the rest of the two days, just do not ask about statistics, because it is useless. There is a human rights abuse going on here, or there is a suspicion that there is human rights abuse. I cannot believe that 95 per cent of children in Victoria that have been found to have Down syndrome have been legally aborted and at least some of them qualify for this funding without some abuse having taken place.

Senator Hanson-Young -Mrs Joseph, you are very passionate about human rights issues and I think that is admirable. How do you balance what you are saying with the rights of the woman?

Mrs Joseph -Good question. I balance it by saying that there are certain principles that are just basic to human rights law, and one of them is the principle of indivisibility. That principle says that the abuse of one person's rights cannot be justified by upholding another person's rights. It requires that human rights protection of both the mother and her unborn child be observed. Both the mother and unborn child have equal rights that stem from the inherent dignity and worth of all members of the human family. When the indivisibility principle is applied, the individual state's misperceived duty to provide expectant mothers with abortion services cannot be performed at the neglect of the more fundamental duty to uphold the rights of their children to special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection before as well as after birth. The right to life is a supreme right and basic to all human rights.

CHAIR -Can I-

Mrs Joseph -And in deciding how you balance one set of rights against the other there are very clear laws. In general, it is an agreed set of principles that you look at proportionality and you look at necessity.

CHAIR -Senator Hanson-Young, if you have got any further questions, can you put them on notice so we can go to Senator Brown and we can wrap this session up.

Senator Hanson-Young  -Sure. My question on notice would be, how do you respond to people who say that they are being forced into pregnancy?

Mrs Joseph -I have written a chapter on this-

CHAIR -That will be taken on notice. Senator Carol Brown.

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