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Respecting women’s voices and choices

By Anne O'Rourke - posted Thursday, 3 March 2005


On February 4, 2004, Alan Cadman, a Coalition MP, told The Age that he “can’t believe that women in this day and age are so dumb to get pregnant willy-nilly”. Among all the statements made about abortion by male politicians this comment seemed to induce the most responses by women angry at being depicted as stupid. However, it was the latest in a long line of such characterisations of women in the current debate.

Since Tony Abbott initiated the abortion debate women have been depicted as frivolous, promiscuous, post-termination basket-cases and in some comments one can detect the attitude of the medieval church, “woman as vessel”. It may come as some surprise to Alan Cadman, but a lot of women can’t believe that in this day and age there are so many men who think they can determine what women should and should not do with their bodies and life choices.

The depictions are deeply offensive, as is the belief held by a small but vocal group of conservative male politicians that their views on abortion can be imposed on the rest of society. The decision to terminate a pregnancy, whether made by single women or couples, is not taken lightly, it is a difficult and emotional one and should not be derided or distorted by government ministers. It is a private matter between women or couples and their medical practitioner.

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In an attempt to push their agenda many of these politicians have implied that “Medicare-funded” abortions are out of control. What they neglect to say is that it is impossible to accurately quantify the numbers of abortions that take place around Australia. As pointed out by the Parliamentary Library Research Brief titled How many abortions are there in Australia? A discussion of abortion statistics, their limitations, and options for improved statistical collection, the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) lists procedures which can result in abortive outcomes but are not the result of terminations as “Medicare-funded abortions”. These procedures include procedures undertaken, such as a curette, “as a result of miscarriage or fetal death, or other gynaecological conditions not necessarily related to pregnancy”.

To make matters worse these same politicians are now threatening to withdraw terminations from Medicare funding and restrict women’s access to safe legal abortion. There are three responses to this threat. First, it will not prevent women having abortions but will rather create a two-tiered system where poor women will resort to life-threatening measures of termination while wealthy women go to their private doctors to obtain a safe abortion. Indeed the Parliamentary Library Research Brief states “the available evidence suggests that the majority of pregnancy terminations in Australia take place in private facilities”, presumably under private health insurance schemes which many women cannot afford. Back to the future.

Second, women pay their taxes just as do other Australians and like other Australians they are entitled to medical services under Medicare including contraception and termination should they arrive at that decision.

Third, religious views should not dictate public health policy. Religious beliefs are just that, beliefs not fact. People are entitled to believe in whatever they choose, whether it be Christianity or flying saucers, but they are not entitled to force others to adopt their value system or to attempt to impose it through the parliaments. Australia is a democracy not a theocracy, it is surprising at a time when there is such a strong fear of extremism and fundamentalism, particularly Islamic, that western countries are moving towards pushing their own narrow religious views in their home countries.

As an aside, some examination of historical Christian views regarding abortion provide interesting reading, they were not always as rigid as today. In earlier centuries there was a notion of “delayed ensoulment”, that the soul could not enter the body of an unformed fetus, thus abortion was only considered wrong if it was a “fetus animus” that is fully developed. However, I digress as the issue is about the right of women to make their own choices not about adherence to a particular religious belief.

The latest strategy by conservatives is to establish abstinence programs in the misguided belief that such programs reduce teenage pregnancy and hence abortion rates. These programs have been widely pushed in the United States yet that country has one of the highest adolescent pregnancy rates for white teenagers compared with other industrialised countries. In 2002, US teenage birth rates per 1,000 averaged 49: by contrast Sweden’s teenage birth rate per 1,000 was 7.

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This difference has been put down to a number of factors. First, teenagers in the US are less likely to use contraception than their peers in other countries, and secondly, pregnancy and birth are more common among US teens in part because the US has a greater proportion of disadvantaged families. What lessons can be drawn from these figures: that comprehensive sex education including information about contraception is a better and more realistic approach to reducing teen birth rates and hence termination rates than programs inspired by medieval attitudes to sex.

This debate is in many ways disingenuous. If Minister Abbott, Senator Boswell and Alan Cadman are so concerned about termination rates then rather than restrict women’s choices and access to safe legal abortion, they should examine some of their own policies and how they contribute to the limitation of choices. For example, the government has floated the idea that the single mothers pension should discontinue when the child is five. As it currently stands many single parents live below the poverty line, and the government’s proposed policy is likely to make the situation worse. How does this situation affect a young single woman who finds herself pregnant coupled with the prospect of poverty? Would not raising the pension above the poverty line and leaving it in place until the child is 18 as currently happens provide that young single woman with a wider range of choices?

What about other policy areas? To assist young couples the government could implement a program to make housing prices more affordable. Young married couples often desire to own a home before they start a family, this is becoming beyond the scope of many and the price of a modest home requires both partners to work for a sustained period. Industrial relations: instead of undermining workers’ rights and pushing for more labour market flexibility the government could promote secure employment and decent wages in order that couples can properly plan for their family development. The government could also implement legislation that ensures workers entitlements are protected and that overtime be played. The absence of such protections only contributes to family stress.

The government needs to reflect how its own policies contribute to decisions to terminate and implement policies that relieve some of the economic pressure off women and families. Other than that, they need to be aware that women do not intend to stand idly by and watch narrow-minded male politicians take away our right to make our own decisions about our bodies and our futures.

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About the Author

Anne O'Rourke is the Vice president of Liberty Victoria and a Lecturer in the Department of Business Law and Taxation at Monash University.

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