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Women's Rights

Speeches in Parliament
Larissa Waters 17 Mar 2016

Senator WATERS

I rise today to talk about women's rights. Sadly in 2016, as we all know, we still do not have gender equality: we do not have equal representation in our parliaments or our business community; we still do not have equal pay with the gender pay gap still being above 17 per cent; we have huge gaps in our retirement incomes when it comes to that stage of our lives; we still do the bulk of unpaid domestic work in the home; and one in three of us still face horrific domestic violence. I have spoken about these issues in the chamber many times before—and there are many women and men from all political parties who are working on these issues and I commend them for that.

Today I want to focus on women's rights over their own bodies. Last month, as many listeners would know, was the 10-year anniversary of RU486, the medical abortion drug, being made available. In February 2006, this parliament passed laws which took away the ministerial veto on importing RU486 from the then health minister, who was of course Mr Tony Abbott who held that position at the time. A famous catchcry of that campaign was: 'Get your rosaries off my ovaries.'

Today I want to pay tribute to the women in federal parliament from all political parties who worked on that issue and who united across party lines to get that reform through. Some of them are still with us; others have moved on to other careers. The bill came about via cooperation from many tremendous women, including then Greens Senator Kerry Nettle; then Democrats Senator Lyn Allison; from the Labor Party, then shadow health minister, Julia Gillard—of course later the Prime Minister; Senators Jan McLucas and Claire Moore from this chamber who still hold those positions; Liberal MP Dr Sharman Stone; and Ministers Helen Coonan and Kay Patterson. It shows that when we work together we can get things done. I think we should all reflect on that, given that we have such huge challenges left in gender issues, sadly, in this day and age.

I want to also give credit and thanks to Dr Caroline de Costa, who is a very well known obstetrician and gynaecologist, who first stuck her neck out to apply for TGA permission to access RU486 and was really the woman who started off this campaign. She remains a fierce advocate for women's rights, and she remains a medical practitioner in my state of Queensland. I want to thank her and commend her efforts over so many years and wish her many more successes and wins.

That is the sort of brave stand that we clearly need to take in Queensland because sadly, in Queensland, abortion is still a crime. It is listed in our Criminal Code. That is also the case in New South Wales. These antiquated criminal laws—in Queensland's case they were written in the 1800s—still say that a woman does not have the right over her own body, because abortion is considered a crime. It is long past time that we changed those archaic laws.

Because of the rules in those utterly outdated and repugnant laws in Queensland, a woman needs to be able to establish that her physical or mental health is seriously in danger from continuing the pregnancy. She needs to find a doctor who will say that her mental health or her physical health would be in serious danger were she to continue with the pregnancy. That is the only way in which an abortion can be legally performed in Queensland. Obviously, that is a huge barrier for the medical community because the legal uncertainty has a very chilling effect on doctors who want to be able to provide patient care and want to be able to empower women. Sadly, those laws are really casting a pall over that.

The combination of those outdated laws and the almost complete absence of publicly available pregnancy terminations makes a termination expensive and really hard to access. From the data that we do have—and it is not perfect—we know that the vast majority of abortions in Queensland are performed in private clinics. It is about 99 per cent versus just one per cent in the public system. That means that women are facing enormous costs. Depending on how far along they are in their pregnancy and whether they are able to access a termination, it can cost up to $1,000. Many Queensland women do not have a spare thousand dollars to have control over their own bodies, and health care should be a universal entitlement, not a privilege for those who can afford it.

In terms of the availability of those clinics, outside the south-east corner there are only clinics on the coastline. There are no clinics available for non-coastal Queensland women. That means, for example, that women in Mount Isa have to travel to Rockhampton, which is miles away, to access a termination.

I believe that the state should not have control over women's bodies and that the provision of pregnancy termination should be safe, should be legal and should be accessible and affordable. We clearly need to take that first step in Queensland and decriminalise abortion, and then we need to move on to make sure that it is safe, legal and affordable. This is a position that many Queenslanders agree with. The last survey that was conducted was in 2009, and it was of about 1,000 people in Queensland. Almost 80 per cent of those agreed that abortion should not be a crime—the law should be changed so that abortion is no longer a crime in Queensland.

In order to do that, of course, we need to change the Criminal Code in Queensland. We would need Queensland state MPs, perhaps with some influence from their federal counterparts, to vote to update those laws. There is obviously some concern that, if we open that can of worms, the rights could be even further restricted, and nobody wants to see that happen, but I do not think that is a valid excuse for doing nothing or for staying quiet, which sadly has been the case for too long. We need a public campaign to restore women's rights over their own bodies and to update those incredibly archaic criminal laws which say that in Queensland abortion is a crime.

I wrote to Queensland MPs. We have 89 of those in our state parliament. I wrote to them late last year and asked them what their position was on this issue and whether they would be prepared to talk to their constituents and to support changing our criminal laws to empower women over their own bodies. Unfortunately, I have not had a response from everyone, and I will send yet another follow-up letter to chase them, but, of the folk that I have heard back from, eight of those support decriminalising abortion; four of them oppose it; and six of them did not really make their position clear in their response. I have not heard back from 71 of them, and they have not gone on the public record to make clear what their position is. I want to thank those MPs who have spoken out on this issue. Clearly, we need more to do so, and I would urge the members of Queensland's Liberal National Party to allow their members a free vote on this issue. My understanding is that that is not the case.

When you have nearly a third of women in Australia who will seek an abortion over their lifetime, it is about time that our laws reflected modern values that trust and empower women to make decisions about their own bodies. As I have said, abortion should be decriminalised and, more than that, it should be safe; it should be legal; and it should be affordable.

There is also the issue of unbiased pregnancy counselling, and that is something that this place could do a lot more to try to remedy. There are, sadly, often anti-abortion organisations which pose as unbiased pregnancy counselling services yet then funnel women away from advice about the full spectrum of their options. That is clearly something we need to do more on, and I look forward to carrying on the work of former senators, particularly former senator Natasha Stott-Despoja, who began some work in that area.

Of course, we still have antichoice protesters outside abortion clinics harassing women as they enter to make what is probably the most difficult decision of their life and doing that in a way that impinges on their dignity, their safety and their privacy. I commend many of the state jurisdictions which are now implementing exclusion zones around abortion clinics. The Greens are the biggest champions for the right to protest; but, when it comes to medical privacy, there needs to be an exclusion zone around those abortion clinics.

Ten years ago we made good progress on women's reproductive rights in this place, by working together across party lines. We sadly still have a long way to go. But I really look forward to carrying on that work and building now on the work federally to update our state parliaments and those criminal laws which, unfathomably, make a woman's control over her own body something that is a question for the state and the Crimes Act.

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