Abortion Is No Sleeper Issue


Now the dust has settled on Labor’s second prime ministerial coup, and with women’s issues barely rating a mention in this election campaign, it is timely to reassess Julia Gillard’s “blue tie” speech.

To some, her comments on abortion were foolhardy. To others she showed great courage to speak in defence of women’s right to choose.

The then-prime minister would have clearly known how controversial her comments would be. A number of MPs in both Labor and the Coalition actively work to restrict women’s sexual and reproductive rights, and some influential media commentators either misunderstand the legal status of this procedure or want to wind the clock back.

Despite this Gillard was willing to speak on an issue central to women’s rights and well-being and this should not be forgotten. Her decision to speak publicly was not a bad tactical move and to dismiss it as an opportunistic move in the so-called gender wars misunderstands what is at stake for women.

The problem was not that the then PM spoke publicly on abortion. The problem was that there was not a strong public voice backing her in what was a historic and necessary speech. Necessary because the push is on from some quarters in Australia to wind back the clock on women’s rights to the full range of sexual and reproductive health procedures. Abortion is still covered by the Crimes Act in some parts of Australia.

The voice of support for the Prime Minister’s comments on abortion was also muted as some commentators asserted that there is nothing at stake on women’s reproductive rights and that Gillard was attempting to “exploit” the issue.

Peter Hartcher, political editor with the Sydney Morning Herald, argued that “It was settled 40 years ago. It was settled in favour of legalised abortion” and accused Gillard of creating “a fear campaign”.

In most states in Australia, including the populous states of Queensland and NSW, women do not have a right to choose. The law does not allow women to decide themselves if they will continue or terminate their pregnancy. The decision is left to one or two doctors.

In all places but Victoria and the ACT, all or part of the law governing abortion is found in the crimes act or criminal code.

In 1998 two Perth doctors were charged with performing an illegal abortion, and in 2006 a NSW doctor was convicted for performing an abortion. In 2009 a 19-year old women and her 21-year old partner living in Cairns were charged by Queensland police with procuring and assisting in the procuring of an abortion.

The law the Queensland couple were charged under was written in 1899 and is clearly no longer relevant to what is a health procedure not a criminal act. The Cairns jury reflected community attitudes when they found the couple not guilty.

Irrespective of what is debated and promised in this election on women’s rights, moves to wind back access to abortion will be back on the agenda in the next federal parliament. Democratic Labor Party Senator John Madigan has flagged it as one of his key issues and there are members of the Liberal, National and Labor parties who actively work or give encouragement to those campaigning to wind back the full suite of sexual and reproductive health measures for women.

Labor for Life has high profile members including Mental Health Minister Senator Jacinta Collins. In 2005 Senator Collins worked with conservative business and religious leaders on the “pro-women, pro-life” campaign that aimed to put abortion back on the national agenda. 

When Rudd returned as Prime Minister he elevated Senator Collins to Deputy Leader of Government Business and promoted her ministerial responsibility to mental health and aging. Labor Senators Ursula Stephens from NSW and Helen Polley from Tasmania have a conservative position on these issues.

The Liberals and Nationals also harbour MPs with similar views.

US anti-abortion tactics of incrementally stripping away abortion access and creating a wedge with extreme situations are now being used by their Australian counterparts.

Senator Madigan is set to bring his campaign to stop gender selection abortions back into parliament. Earlier this year he kicked this off with a motion and a private member's bill. The Australian Medical Association and the Public Health Association of Australia recommended that Senator Madigan's bill removing Medicare funding for gender-based abortions not be supported and have said that there is no reliable evidence that gender-based abortions are being carried out in Australia.

Despite this Labor and the Coalition backed the DLP motion on gender selection abortions. The Greens opposed this Trojan horse motion as it was misleading where it stated that various UN agencies have called for "urgent steps" to address gender-biased sex selection.

What the UN had called for is urgent action on the root causes of preferencing male children over daughters, including violence against women, gender inequality and advancing women's human rights. Picking out the one issue of sex-selection abortion for urgent attention is an unhelpful distraction from getting on with a more comprehensive program that tackles the root causes of women's inequality.

With the possibility of Senator Madigan being in balance of power these issues could take on even greater prominence. Recent history is a reminder of the extent of damage that can be done to women’s right to choose when conservative politicians abuse their power.

In the 1990s Tasmanian Senator Harradine, who had a similar outlook to Senator Madigan, did deals with the Howard government that he would back the sale of Telstra in exchange for the introduction of restrictions on women’s reproductive rights including the adoption of AusAID Family Planning Guidelines that stopped funding to any overseas projects that supplied abortions.

The forces lined up against women’s right to access abortions are formidable and they have a wealth of experience drawn from their years of campaigning and from the new tactics emerging in the US. So it is not surprising the former PM was attacked for speaking out on women’s right to access safe abortions. She was up against the conservatives on women’s rights and those in Labor who wanted to remove her.

Still she did the right thing for women in Australia and the almost 70,000 of the world's poorest women dying each year from unsafe abortion. Next time an Australian political leader speaks on women’s right to access abortion we need to ensure that they receive overwhelming public support. That is what is critical to changing attitudes and the law.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.