Vote For Women


By the time this article appears in New Matilda, we will probably know if the members of the House of Representatives have followed the example of their colleagues in the Senate and voted to remove the Health Minister’s right to veto the commercial sale of the drug RU486 in Australia.

I write on the eve of the vote, however, and despite noises in the media about the numbers being in favour of returning this drug to the jurisdiction of the TGA, I cannot help remaining on tenterhooks. The usual tactics of obfuscation have been employed, with at least two amendments being moved by opponents to split the vote and confuse the issue, putting its chance of being passed in the Lower House further in doubt.

Whatever happens with RU486, however, the conscience vote on this issue has emphasised a profoundly important feature of our democracy: the dangerously low representation of women in our Federal Parliament. The argument for more women in positions of power is usually couched in terms of fairness, but the justification for taking a sledgehammer to the glass ceiling is much more important than that.

Thanks to Bill Leak.

Last week’s vote in the Senate, as virtually everyone now knows, was remarkable for the way it split the genders. All but 3 of the 28 female Senators, no matter which Party they belonged to, voted in favour of the amendment: female solidarity in anyone’s language.

The male Senators, however, were evenly divided 22 voting with the majority of women, and 25 voting against them.

What this reveals is obvious, there are issues in our community which unite women along gender lines in a way that does not occur with men. Women’s lives, particularly their reproductive lives, are theoretical to men, but they are stark reality to us. During the debate, Senator Amanda Vanstone, somewhat to my surprise, was particularly effective as she saltily pointed out to ‘the boys’ in the Upper House that it was easy for them to object to this Bill. Senator Lynne Allison called the pious lecturing by some of the male Senators ‘galling’ as women around Australia nodded their heads.

It has always particularly offended me, as a woman who, like Lynne Allison, has had an abortion, when I have heard men and some women object to women terminating pregnancy on what they call ‘lifestyle’ grounds, as if choosing to go ahead with a pregnancy is like deciding whether to buy a new handbag. The lifestyle grounds they are sneering at are usually a woman thinking seriously about what kind of a parent she is likely to be, and wanting to be able to commit fully to any new life she may bring into the world.

Compulsory parenthood has always been a recipe for disaster. Indeed, the bestselling book Freakenomics claims that 18 years after the Roe v Wade case in the US Supreme Court legitimated abortion in America, crime rates in the US began to fall. Doubting their own data, the authors of the book explored other possible explanations until they realised that the four US States that had had abortion law reform prior to Roe v Wade also experienced drops in crime rates exactly 18 years after they had legalised terminations.

Women, who still do the lion’s share of the heavy lifting when it comes to parenting, are much more conscious of the huge responsibility it is to bring a child into the world. And the enormous commitment and effort that is required to bring them up well. Most of us, as demonstrated by the female Senators last week, would rather a child had a right to a decent life than just a right to life. And this gender divide is not just obvious in Australia. In the US, both George Bushs, senior and junior, are anti-abortion, while both their wives, Barbara and Laura, are pro-choice.

This is why I believe it is so vital that we have more women in our parliaments, notwithstanding twits like Danna Vale (although I am sure we could all name her male equivalents). There is little incentive for men in parliament to do much more than mouth platitudes about childcare, maternity leave and reproductive rights. However well-meaning male MPs may be (and some of them are very well-meaning indeed) these issues mostly remain theoretical or are seen as ‘soft’ issues (and therefore unimportant) by a substantial proportion of them. On the contrary, these issues are fundamentally important because the way we raise the next generation literally creates the future.

There is something deeply egotistical about the way some men respond to the abortion debate as Julia Gillard pointed out succinctly when she said to Minister Abbott, ‘For God’s sake, Tony, it’s not about you.’ Indeed, so impossible is it for some men to ever simply accept that they don’t know what they don’t know, we are now witnessing the farce of some of them (Messrs Abbott, Gerard Henderson and Christopher Pearson, in particular) trying to reframe the debate in their own terms. They are claiming that far from this debate being anti-female, it is somehow anti-Catholic.

Apparently, according to these blokes, it hasn’t been the Catholic church oppressing women, it is women who have been oppressing Catholics all along despite the fact that women allow Catholics to take leadership roles in our secular parliaments, in marked contrast to the roles deemed suitable for women in the Catholic church.

According to these gents, when women dare to assume that Minister Abbott’s response to RU486 will be influenced by his oft-mentioned religious beliefs, these women are being biased and sectarian, rather than reacting to many centuries of hard evidence. And when, with t-shirts like Senator Kerry Nettle’s ‘Keep your rosaries off my ovaries’, women dare to tease the Catholic church about its desire to dictate to all women whether Catholic or not what they should or should not do with their bodies (and let’s remember, the Catholic church is as firmly opposed to contraception as it is to abortion), these blokes sulk and cry, ‘Prejudice!’

Well, rather than be sectarian, I am prepared to be ecumenical. I am sick of all religions and their adherents claiming the high moral ground and therefore the right to tell everyone what they should be allowed to read or publish, what constitutes art or not, what is acceptable humour and what isn’t, who it is okay to sleep with and who it isn’t, when and why to have sex, and what you can and cannot do about reproduction, voluntary euthanasia and suicide.

Believe whatever it is you want to, adhere to whatever rules you like, but remember, I have exactly the same right as you do, whether it is my own conscience I use to steer my actions or some deity’s book of rules.

If you don’t believe in contraception or abortion or RU486, refuse to use them. If you want to reduce the number of abortions in Australia, how about you do some hard work in the areas of sex education, free contraception, childcare, support for single mothers and make some really tough decisions about making sure all Australian children have enough money to live on, decent health care (there are many children living under this Health Minister who can’t afford dental care or glasses, for example) and well resourced schools to attend?

How about making it more attractive to be a parent, rather than some kind of punishment God invented to punish women for having sex.

Freakenomics, Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner (HarperCollins, New York, 2005)

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