Senate debates

Thursday, 27 June 2013


Health Insurance Amendment (Medicare Funding for Certain Types of Abortion) Bill 2013; Second Reading

4:30 pm

Photo of John MadiganJohn Madigan (Victoria, Democratic Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The central objective of the Health Insurance Amendment (Medicare Funding for Certain Types of Abortion) Bill 2013 is to remove Medicare funding for abortions which are undertaken solely for the purpose of gender selection. It is universally acknowledged that abortion for the purpose of gender selection is abhorrent. This is evidenced by the overwhelming support given by both the government and the opposition to a motion passed in this place last week. I wish I could presume the same overwhelming support for this bill that echoes those exact sentiments and aims to unequivocally send the message that gender selection abortion is unacceptable and that Australian taxpayers will not support it.

Unfortunately, the politically based roadblocks that have been thrown up against this bill and against the yet-to-be tabled committee report are not encouraging. That was universally acknowledged by our fellow Australians, who provided 1,150 submissions and other correspondence to the inquiry into this bill—99 per cent of which supported the removal of Medicare funding for gender selection abortion. Included in those 1,150 submissions were several that opposed this bill. One of those submissions, by the Fertility Control Clinic in Melbourne, the largest private abortion provider in Victoria, states that they do receive requests for gender selection abortions. Despite this evidence that gender selection abortions are being sought, despite the overwhelming number of submissions received and despite my own objections, the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee flatly refused to hold a single public hearing—not one. I was told that while attending a public hearing on an inquiry that had received just 27 submissions.

From the outset, I want to say clearly that this bill is a bill of very limited scope. It is limited entirely to Medicare funding for gender selection of abortion—no more, no less. It has been rumoured that this is the beginning of moves to restrict the availability of abortion. I make no secret that I would like to see abortion eradicated but I am not so naive as to believe that it can happen without also providing for the needs of families and women. I firmly believe that abortion should not be used to shame women or make women feel guilty. Every abortion is a tragedy. It is a failure to care and a failure to provide assistance; it is a failure of economics; it is a failure of relationships; and it is a failure of respect for women. These are all issues for another time.

With the incredibly rapid advance in our abilities to detect certain traits in DNA, there may be a time in the future when I will introduce a bill seeking to stop funding for abortions based on the selection of blue-eyed children over brown-eyed or of a dark-skinned child over a white-skinned child. At some point the widely looked for gay gene will no doubt be identified. When it is, will people be happy to support the principle of aborting a child because its DNA suggests it to be gay? Do we allow the deciding factor in whether or not that child should be allowed to live to be whether or not it is gay?

I can tell you now that I am not the one to fear when these decisions are being made. I will not deny life to another human being based on physical features or on race or on sexual orientation. I will be the one fighting for their right to live whether brown-eyed, dark-skinned or gay. As I said, these are fights for another day. But how we approach those fights will be determined greatly by how we vote on this bill. Make no mistake, when those issues arise—and they will—it will be this debate and this parliament's decision on this bill that will be one of the determining factors on who we allow to live in our society.

This bill is solely about restricting the availability of Medicare funding for abortion for the purpose of gender selection, a practice which is morally reprehensible in any circumstance. There is ample evidence that gender selection abortion occurs in countries such as China and India. A recent screening of the film It's a Girl showed how devastating these practices are in those countries. In some places there are over 130 boys born to every 100 girls. The consequences for further generations are frightening as these children approach marriageable age. Already in China girls are being kidnapped as prospective spouses for sons. But there is a more frightening aspect to this.

The root cause of gender selection is a profound disrespect for women. We have heard a lot from members in the other place about misogyny. There is no greater misogyny than choosing to abort a baby because she is a girl. There is no greater misogyny than treating women as breeding machines for future male heirs This attitude of treating women in Third World countries as breeding machines is also evident in the use of Indian women as baby incubators for First World couples. That too is an issue for another time.

There is no argument that gender selection abortions are happening in India and China. The United Nations report Sex Imbalances at Birth. Current trends, consequences and policy implications, published in 2012, documents the spread of sex selection around the world. It is no longer a problem just in China and India; it is also widely encountered in Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia and, in south-east Europe, Georgia, Albania and Montenegro. The United Nations has repeatedly called for action to bring an end to this practice. Australia is a signatory to the International Conference on Population and Development, Cairo, 1994. This means that Australia has agreed to take all necessary action to achieve its objectives. These include action 4.23, which reads:

Governments are urged to take the necessary measures to prevent infanticide, prenatal sex selection, trafficking in girl children and use of girls in prostitution and pornography.

Australia unequivocally voted in favour of action to eradicate prenatal sex selection at UN conferences on women in Cairo in 1994 and Beijing in 1996. We have an obligation to act to prevent this practice. This bill is one way of achieving this. We are kidding ourselves if we believe that this does not happen here. Gender-selection abortion does occur in Western countries. The Council of Europe notes that prenatal sex selection is not confined to Asia. In its resolution on prenatal sex selection it warns that altered sex ratios have been observed in a number of member states. It condemns the practice of prenatal sex selection as a phenomenon which finds its roots in a culture of gender inequality and reinforces a climate of violence against women.

Social and family pressure placed on women not to pursue a pregnancy because of the sex of the foetus is to be considered as a form of psychological violence. The UK Department of Health has also launched an inquiry, following a newspaper investigation into gender-selection termination in British clinics. Sex ratio imbalances have been seen among children of parents of Asian origin in the United States. In 2011, the United Nations Population Fund reported in its guidance notes on prenatal sex selection that, according to the 2000 census of the United States, immigrants from China, India and the Republic of Korea had a sex ratio at birth almost as skewed as in their countries of origin. In Canada, figures show that certain communities with large proportions of immigrants from China and India are also experiencing the same unusual sex ratios as those seen in those Asian countries.

There is no obvious reason why this phenomenon would not also be occurring in Australia. In fact, we have evidence of gender-selection abortion in Australia. Recently a Melbourne GP, Dr Mark Hobart, came forward with a case which occurred in his practice. A couple of Indian origin requested a referral for abortion when a 20-week ultrasound revealed a female foetus. Dr Hobart refused to refer the couple, but they were able to abort the child at an abortion clinic.

As an aside here, I want to bring to the chamber's attention the despicable way in which some have tried to discredit Dr Hobart because he is a member of the DLP. Does being a member of the Greens discredit the medical authority of Dr Richard Di Natale? Does being a member of the Liberal Party discredit Dr Mal Washer and Dr Sharman Stone? Further evidence has come from a sonographer, who described being left with the feeling that she had given a child a death sentence when the female gender of the child was revealed to an Afghani couple. Here we have two cases of gender-selection abortion. Yes, we certainly need more data but we do have evidence.

Many have suggested that this bill was ill conceived because it is difficult to determine that gender-selection abortion takes place. But I have just provided evidence. Others have suggested that there was no evidence that certain cultural groupings where such a practice is common were engaging in gender-selection abortion in Australia.

Interestingly, the same can be said of female genital mutilation. It is difficult to determine how prevalent it may be. Prosecutions are rare. It is practised amongst certain cultural groups. But, in the case of female genital mutilation, a number of educative and legal initiatives have been put in place through the government's National Compact on Female Genital Mutilation. There is no ambiguity in the Compact on FGM. It states clearly that FGM is unacceptable. The compact also declares Australia's commitment to stand by its obligations to the UN, which include taking action to end the practice of FGM for women and girls living in Australia, and for women and girls settling in Australia and throughout the world, who are or may be in the future affected by FGM.

The National Compact on FGM is unswerving in its commitment—and rightly so. We will not excuse or ignore the practice of FGM. The initiative aims to educate migrants and refugees from areas where such practices are culturally acceptable that such a practice is not acceptable in Australia. FGM is illegal in all states and territories, despite the fact that it is difficult to detect.

In their 11 December 2012 press release entitled 'Gillard government to act on female genital mutilation in Australia', the then Prime Minister, Ms Gillard, and the Minister for Health, Ms Plibersek, referred to the practice of FGM as 'barbaric' and 'horrific'. The joint statement continued:

We do not know how widespread this practice is in Australia but we know there have been instances, and anecdotal evidence suggests these are not isolated.

The Prime Minister and the health minister stated that, although there was only limited, apparently anecdotal evidence that this practice had been occurring in Australia, one such procedure in this country is one too many. I suggest that gender-selection abortion is also horrific and barbaric. For gender selection, too, anecdotal evidence suggests it is not isolated. I am willing to give the former Prime Minister and the health minister the last word:

One such procedure performed in this country is one too many.

4:44 pm

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I know that we have limited time this afternoon, but it is really important that we have a discussion about the Health Insurance Amendment (Medicare Funding for Certain Types of Abortion) Bill 2013. I do not have the privilege of being on the Finance and Public Administration Committee which considered it. But, as people would know, there was interest and we read the submissions. It is important to know that this kind of bill is not isolated to Australia. This type of legislation has been proposed in many countries of the world over the last six months. There have been attempts at this kind of legislation in several states of the US, in Latvia, in parts of Russia and in a whole range of other countries. That is all on the record. Very similarly worded bills have been put up. That does not mean that it should not be discussed, but we need to understand that the type of legislation being proposed is not peculiar to Australia.

One of the aspects of the bill is that it looks at the issues around United Nations declarations. I celebrate the fact that we are looking at a range of UN conventions and declarations to which Australia is a signatory. I saw no-one during our recent committee hearing nor in general discussion in Australia who in any way supports any discrimination against women—and discrimination in the form of terminations of girl children in particular. That has been a point raised. That was the focus of the UN declaration.

The relevant part of the UN cross-agency statement that was quoted, both during the committee hearing and also this afternoon, talks about the fact that states have the obligation under human rights laws to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of girls and women. It refers to the ICPD, which I keep almost by my bedside and to which I have referred many times in this place. Principle 8 of the ICPD of 1994—which has been reinforced consistently—says:

Everyone has the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. States should take all appropriate measures to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women, universal access to health-care services, including those related to reproductive health care, which includes family planning and sexual health. Reproductive health-care programmes should provide the widest range of services without any form of coercion. All couples and individuals have the basic right to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children and to have the information, education and means to do so.

The declaration then talks about any preference given to male children, to sons, and about the horror of any discrimination against women and women who are giving birth to children. We all agree with that. We need to work forward from that.

But one of the core aspects of the discussion is that all states must put in place a range of support mechanisms so that women and their families can make effective and responsible decisions. The bill before us is giving one narrow response to this issue. Indeed, as Senator Madigan pointed out, what he has put before our parliament is quite specific. We need a wider response. We do not need to put all the focus on one medical element, a focus that does not reflect the views of the Australian community.

A number of submissions to the committee questioned whether the issue of sex selection abortion was real in Australia. Senator Madigan has pointed out one case. I am not doubting the evidence that came before the Senate committee, Senator Madigan, and I do not think that anyone should impugn any evidence that comes before a Senate committee. However, a wide range of evidence was documented by organisations such as the Australian Foundation of Women and also the Reproductive Choice group that looked at the Australian community and our birth rates. That evidence pointed out that the Australian sex ratio at birth now is 105.7 male births per 100 female births and that is within the normal range of 102 to 106. They are not things that I have made up. This is the scientific and statistical basis to look at the rates of birth in our country. There is nothing there that points out that there is any dominance of or preference for male births over female births—or indeed female births over male births. There is no evidence from any change in our birth rates that people are making conscious sex selection decisions and terminating births on that basis.

I am also concerned that we are impugning parents—and particularly mothers—of some specific backgrounds in saying, 'If there is an issue, it will be mothers and families of this particular ethnic background.' I find that difficult. In looking at our Australian community, one of our responsibilities is to ensure that our values and our way of life is shared by all the people who live within it. That is what being part of the Australian community means. We see it when people take on citizenship in the pledges that they make. Impugning one group and inferring that because they happen to come from a particular country where there is sex selection—and we know it, and we heard Senator Madigan point out a couple of those countries—that will automatically translate to how they live and make choices in Australia is not a fair process and could lead, in the worst possible scenario, to a focus on women from particular backgrounds who are choosing to take medical advice about their options with pregnancy.

Remember that what we are talking about is the right of women in our country to make choices about, as ICPD principle 8 says, the children that they will have and the number and spacing of their children. The core aspect in this argument is that the Medicare payments in our country reflect the medical practice in our country. It is a clinical process in terms of women having the right to have personal and private discussions with their medical practitioners about the choices they want to make. I am concerned that if we put more regulation into this process about making sure that there are lists or data kept on the choices and the background to choices it may actually cause women to not have the freedom and the strength to make decisions and to take advice that they need. In this debate we consistently hear about force and coercion and fear. We want to minimalise that environment so that women have that personal security, when they seek medical advice, that it will be just that: personal and secure. That is the basis of our medical system.

We also heard a number of people talking about their concerns about how we are going to move forward if we begin to have this kind of intrusion into what is an Australian right and an Australian freedom: the ability in our country to ensure that people across the board do understand their rights and do understand their responsibilities. We had evidence in the committee, which I have read, that talks about the medical practitioners—the NHMRC guidelines, which are already there and which we rely on for our medical practitioners to understand their responsibilities and their relationship with their patients. In terms of the protections that are already in place in Australia, we do have systems that allow appropriate practice and appropriate understanding.

Should there be a fear about processes such as sex-selection abortion coming into our country, we need to ensure—and in fact we have a responsibility to ensure—that effective information is made public to tell people what rights and responsibilities they have in Australia. We need to refer, as Senator Madigan has done so well, to the various UN conventions that are in place giving people that understanding, that freedom and that responsibility. And I definitely support that. What I do not support is a single approach that is focusing on the Medicare payments, which is one way of highlighting a presumed problem that I genuinely do not believe we have in our country. I hope that through the process Senator Madigan has put in place there will be an openness around discussions on this issue so that we do not hide—we do not run away from the process—but we do not automatically presume guilt. And that seems to me to be the bottom-line message of this legislation: we presume that there is a problem, we presume that certain people are taking actions—which we do not support. We do not believe that any child or any sex or any person should be treated differently on the basis of their gender. It is not the Australian way. It is certainly not the way that has been promoted in a range of UN processes.

I was lucky enough to be at the Beijing women's conference, and these issues were openly debated. At that conference we had women—and some men—from around the world who share a commitment to equity and equal rights. They also share a very strong commitment to reproductive health, reproductive education and reproductive equity. If, through this bill, we actually restate those processes and get that agenda clearly on the record, the bill will have had some success. I do not believe that we need another regulation within the Medicare system that relates specifically to a problem that has been identified somewhere else. I do not believe that that is the methodology or the process we should use. In terms of what we can do, I think it is important that we actually look at what is occurring in Australia, see whether there is any concern raised by Senator Madigan and check that out. But I also believe that if a practitioner has a particular concern they have the right to not provide a service. And that is certainly within the process and something we have talked about before.

I am really pleased that I was able, in the discussion in this area, to work with a couple of young women. I particularly want to acknowledge Maddie and JD, who are really interested in our future and the issues of women's rights in this country. They, through this process, have received the information from the committee report. They have actually looked at what was happening internationally. They are the ones who actually pulled out the information from the various UN declarations and conferences. We need to focus on ensuring that women have free choice, that they have safety and that they have a sense that, through the medical practices in this country, they will be getting effective information and support rather than having the sense that there is something fearful or worrying about the actions they take.

4:57 pm

Photo of Michaelia CashMichaelia Cash (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on this private senator's bill, the Health Insurance Amendment (Medicare Funding for Certain Types of Abortion) Bill 2013, brought forward by Senator Madigan, a DLP senator for Victoria. The bill seeks to remove Medicare funding for abortion procured on the basis of gender. This bill is not about abortion per se. Schedule 1 of the bill proposes to amend the Health Insurance Act 1973 by inserting a proposed new section 17A. Proposed new section 17A(1) provides that a Medicare benefit is not payable if:

(a) the professional service involves a medical practitioner performing:

(i) a medically induced termination on a pregnant woman;

(ii) a service that relates to or is connected with performing a medically induced termination on a pregnant woman; and

(b) the termination is carried out solely because of the gender of the foetus.

The explanatory memorandum of the bill suggests that the bill would have limited financial impacts. The explanatory memorandum also states that the bill is compatible with the human rights and freedoms recognised or declared in international instruments listed in section 3 of the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Act 2011.

It has been said—and certainly Senator Madigan recognised this in his speech—that this bill was brought before the Senate as a stunt by a senator from the Democratic Labor Party. Senator Madigan, however, in his maiden speech, clearly outlined for the Senate those matters in which he has a passionate belief and upon which he intends to uphold his principles. I just want to quote from Senator Madigan's maiden speech. He said:

During my time here there will no doubt be a number of controversial bills proposed. I do not intend to be deliberately controversial simply for a few cheap headlines but on some issues I cannot be complicit by my silence.

As someone who believes we live in a democratic society that places great value on freedom—freedom of speech, of thought and of expression—I support Senator Madigan's right to stand up and stand by his principles and bring this bill before the Australian Senate.

Whilst the issue of abortion is one that probably encourages and creates much debate, we should always support a position that encourages respect for the views and opinions of others. Plurality of ideas and views, underpinned by common values and goals, is the basis for a healthy democracy. Indeed, I am reminded of the words of French philosopher and social reformer Voltaire, who, in the 1700s, was known as a defender of religious freedom, free trade and civil liberties and was also a determined fighter against the limitations of censorship, religious dogma and intolerance. So many years ago, in support of the democratic right of others to express a view, he said:

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

The background to this bill is set out in the explanatory memorandum tabled by Senator Madigan when he introduced this private senator's bill. The explanatory memorandum sets out that in 2011 the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Population Fund, the United Nations Children's Fund, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, and the World Health Organization issued an interagency statement entitled Preventing gender-biased sex selection. The report refers to the practice of gender selection as discriminatory and greatly prejudicial towards the girl child and women in society.

In addition to the interagency statement, the explanatory memorandum notes that the United Nations Population Fund has urged governments to fulfil the commitments made at the 1994 Cairo population conference to:

… take the necessary measures to prevent infanticide, prenatal sex selection, trafficking in girl children.

The interagency statement and the 1994 Cairo population conference identify that gender selection abortions do occur in countries such as China, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Taiwan, South Korea, Bangladesh, Azerbaijan, Armenia and a number of other countries, and in such overwhelming numbers that they have drastically skewed the sex ratio.

I also note that the 2011 interagency statement entitled Preventing gender-biased sex selection from the UN agencies and the World Health Organization reaffirms the commitment of the United Nations to:

… uphold the rights of girls and women and to address the multiple manifestations of gender discrimination including the problem of imbalanced sex ratios caused by sex selection.

In speaking to Senator Madigan's private senator's bill, I note that the Australian Senate recently passed a motion put forward by Senator Madigan in relation to gender based sex selection. The motion called on the Senate to note that five United Nations agencies had issued a combined report calling for urgent steps to be taken to address gender biased sex selection. It also called on the Senate to note that, according to the 2000 United States census, the sex ratio at birth for migrants to the United States of America from China, India and the Republic of Korea was almost as skewed as in their countries of origin. At the UN International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1984 and at the Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing in 1995, Australia committed to:

… enact and enforce legislation protecting girls from all forms of violence, including female infanticide and prenatal sex selection.

It also called upon the Australian Senate to condemn the practice of gender biased sex selection and abortion, or infanticide, whether in Australia or overseas. The motion was passed with the support of the coalition and the government. It was not supported by the Australian Greens. However, I note that, in her statement to the Senate, Senator Rhiannon stated:

The Australian Greens condemn the practice of gender biased sex selection abortions.

I also note that the submission to the Senate inquiry into this bill from Family Voice Australia referred to a survey conducted by Galaxy Research, in February 2013, in relation to public opinion on gender biased sex selection. The survey found that 92 per cent of respondents were opposed to abortion due to the sex of a child, with only six per cent being in favour. The submission also noted that in December 2010 Rebecca Kippen reported that 80 per cent of Australians were opposed to sex-selective abortions. It would appear that public opinion is consistent with the sentiments of the motion that was passed by the Australian Senate. Even the National Foundation for Australian Women, a well-known left-wing feminist organisation, said in its submission to the Senate inquiry:

NFAW is aware of the existence in some countries of such practices [being gender based sex selection], and finds such practices abhorrent, as we find the cultural practice of female genital mutilation.

In relation to Senator Madigan's bill, on 21 March 2013 the Senate referred the bill to the Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee for inquiry and report. The Senate inquiry received over 1,000 submissions, which I would contend is a reflection of the myriad contrasting and varying views surrounding the issue of abortion. As the coalition spokesperson on the status of women, I also note with interest that so many of the submissions to the Senate inquiry did not support sex-selective abortion, because in the view of the submitters it reflects deeply entrenched gender inequality.

Senators who have taken an active interest in this issue over the years will be aware that in some countries and cultures traditions supported by particular customs and practices are now able to be combined with technology, and the predetermined result has been millions and millions of sex-selective abortions. A significant body of evidence indicates that these sex-selective abortions relate to unborn baby girls. The practice of sex-selective abortions occurs particularly in societies where poverty is prevalent or where the cultural preference is for a firstborn son. The increase in this practice regrettably means that an unborn baby girl becomes a potential victim of a sex-selective abortion merely because she is a girl. This can only lead to the further entrenchment of gender inequality, which we as a society should be working hard towards eradicating. In its submission to the Senate inquiry into this bill, Family Voice Australia state:

The use of ultrasound technology to determine the gender (sex) of an unborn child combined with the traditional cultural preference for sons and the availability of abortion has led to increasing imbalances in the sex ratio in countries such as India, China, Nepal, Vietnam, the Caucasian republics and parts of the Balkans.

The range in the sex ratio at birth if there is no interference in normal biological processes is between 102 and 108 boys for every 100 girls. Any ratio outside this range points to human intervention.

A number of submissions to the Senate inquiry refer to the fact that, whilst the practice of gender based abortion does occur in a number of countries, there is no comprehensive or reliable empirical evidence to suggest that it occurs in Australia and that Medicare is being used for the purpose of sex selective abortion. Women's Health Victoria, in their submission to the Senate inquiry, note:

… Australia has an entirely normal ratio of male to female births, which would suggest that sex selective abortion is rare,

…   …   …

Just over half (51%) of all births registered in 2011 were male babies, resulting in a sex ratio at birth of 105.7 male births per 100 female births. The biologically normal sex ratio at birth ranges from 102 to 106 males per 100 females. It is also worth noting that most abortions occur early on in pregnancy, before the sex of the foetus is known.

In relation to the coalition's position on abortion law, Mr Abbott has stated that an incoming coalition government will not be changing the laws on abortion. Mr Abbott has also stated—and I believe his position is shared by numerous policy makers—that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. I do not believe that there would be anyone in this chamber who would disagree with that sentiment.

The issue of abortion itself is predominantly a matter for the states. In this regard, I note that, in relation to the substance of this bill, whilst the Commonwealth does have responsibility for the Medicare funding of abortion, the states and territories have responsibility for most laws and regulations relating to abortion law in Australia. In most states across Australia, gender selection is generally prohibited, and I note that three states have enacted legislation specifically in relation to this issue. The ban relating to gender sex selection came into force in 2004, when the National Health and Medical Research Council was established under the National Health and Medical Research Council Act 1992 and outlawed it on moral and ethical grounds. The council's guidelines state:

Sex selection is an ethically controversial issue. The Australian Health Ethics Committee believes that admission to life should not be conditional upon a child being a particular sex.

Bills such as these draw attention to the implementation of policies that directly relate to the delivery of real outcomes for women in Australia. In that regard, I note the achievements of the former Howard government when it comes to delivering real policy outcomes for Australian women. In particular, I note that when Mr Abbott was the health minister in Australia he introduced a pregnancy support hotline to help women with unexpected and unplanned pregnancies. This is an example of the type of policy decision that makes a real difference in the life of a woman when she falls pregnant.

As the coalition's spokesperson for the status of women, I reiterate that the coalition acknowledge the evidence that sex selective abortion is known to take place in countries in which gender inequality is deeply entrenched and male children are more highly valued. Like so many submitters to the Senate inquiry into Senator Madigan's bill, we too support the global effort to end gender inequality. We agree with the statement made by Women's Health Victoria, in its submission to the Senate inquiry, which said:

It is through widespread societal change in attitudes towards women that lasting improvements to the lives of women will be achieved.

5:12 pm

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The Health Insurance Amendment (Medicare Funding for Certain Types of Abortion) Bill, moved by Democratic Labor Party Senator John Madigan, is not about sex selection abortion. The Greens share concerns about sex selection abortion where it occurs. However, there is no evidence abortions procured on the basis of selecting the gender of the child are occurring in Australia or that Medicare is being used to fund such procedures. The proposer of the bill, Senator Madigan, and the submissions that we have received show no evidence that there is this problem—a very serious problem, I certainly acknowledge—occurring in Australia. We have heard reports of anecdotal incidents, but have no evidence.

We need to look at why this is occurring. Why is this bill being advanced in the Senate? It is actually the latest ugly tactic of those who want to limit women's sexual reproductive rights. For many, their aim is to ban women's right to choose abortion. Quite seriously, this bill is unnecessary, and it is vexatious. It is about whipping up unfounded fear in the community by stigmatising women who seek abortion. That is certainly an underlying result. The tactic behind this bill is straight out of the US anti-choice campaign song book. That is a very ugly campaign also, where there is a real push to stop women seeking the full range of sexual and reproductive health rights. The tactic that so many of those people are now using is to chip away at smaller targets that limit women's right to choose.

In speaking about the US, while there are many who attack women's rights in this way, there are also some heroic people defending women's rights. Considering we are debating this bill this week, we should note and congratulate Senator Wendy Davis who spoke in the Texas Senate this week for more than now nine hours to try to stop an anti-abortion bill that, if it becomes law, would force a number of clinics to close. I was inspired by her passion and commitment on this issue—something that I think we need more of in this parliament.

It is also important to note that this bill comes before the Senate the day after Australia's first female Prime Minister was sacked. While the Greens clearly parted company with the former Gillard government on many issues, I congratulate the former Prime Minister for highlighting women's abortion rights, their right to access abortion. The attacks that rained down on her when she made those comments, for me, highlighted how spot-on she was to raise this very issue. Comments from conservative MPs and from some commentators were revealing in the misinformation that is so often peddled about abortion and that is being pushed at this time in terms of how the tactics around this issue are rolling out. We were told that the abortion issue was settled, that there is no problem with the law, that it is not a federal issue and that Mr Abbott is not against women's rights. This bill shows how right Ms Gillard was to raise the issue and how right she was in what she raised. This bill is a shot across the bows of Mr Abbott.

We are yet to see if Senator Madigan will use his vote to try to roll back women's right to choose, in a similar way to what former Senator Harradine achieved. We all know that Senator Madigan could have great influence over an Abbott government as he may end up sharing the balance of power in the Senate. If that occurs we obviously do not know what will happen but, again, it is relevant to the tactics being used here. In his speech just delivered Senator Madigan spoke about fights for another day. Those were his exact words, 'fights for another day', which carry a clear implication that the senator is preparing further attacks on women's right to choose. What we know is that the former Prime Minister, in her speech on 11 June, flushed out the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, on the abortion issue.

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator, I remind you to refer to Mr Abbott by his title.

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Sorry, I apologise. I do acknowledge that, when this debate blew up in early June, Mr Abbott did give a guarantee on this issue. He said that he would not do a deal on abortion with Senator Madigan or with any other senator holding the balance of power. As I said, we know that Senator Madigan could end up holding the balance of power, but we also know that some of Mr Abbott's previous comments on abortion are very troubling to many people. During the debate over the availability of the drug RU486 Mr Abbott told the parliament:

We have a bizarre double standard in this country where someone who kills a pregnant woman's baby is guilty of murder but a woman who aborts an unborn baby is simply exercising choice.

Those are deeply troubling words. They are very insulting and they are very painful words for women who make a very difficult and very challenging decision if they choose to have an abortion.

The comments that we have just heard from Senator Cash added to my concerns of whether we can trust Mr Abbott's guarantee. It is a guarantee that has been spelt out in very clever words of 'safe', 'legal' and 'rare' and, as Senator Cash said, they are words that we agree with. But, what is going to happen here? Are we going to see a situation where space is opened up for Senator Madigan to expand the tactics that he is clearly advancing to damage women's right to choose? Senator Cash's speech on this bill, I felt, brought no balance to this issue. I say that because there is no evidence about sex selection. Again I say, so that the Greens' position is not distorted, sex-selection abortion, where it is occurring, is obviously extremely serious and has to be dealt with, but there is no evidence of it happening in Australia. While Senator Cash's language about sex-selection abortion was carefully crafted, it was a speech that Senator Madigan could take encouragement from. It leaves the door open for the DLP agenda.

What is also relevant to this debate is the report that the Senate committee brought down on this bill. I was very surprised and concerned with this report. During my time in this place, which is still short and just coming up to two years, I have not seen a report where there was no recommendation. Here we have a report where Labor and coalition MPs, I believe, failed to stand up for women. There were no recommendations, and there should have been a clear recommendation that this bill should not proceed, because the evidence, when you look at the submissions, is so strong. It is clear that many of the submissions recommended that the bill should not go ahead, and the evidence that I referred to is that there is no evidence about sex-selection abortions in this country. So, the Labor and coalition senators on that committee avoided their responsibility for making any recommendations.

Many of the submissions were very clear. There were submissions from the Public Health Association of Australia, the Australian Medical Association, the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties, the Women's Legal Services Australia and Reproductive Choice Australia. These groups are opposed to sex-selection abortion and they set out a very clear case of why this bill should not be passed by the Senate. One of the submissions that I would like to refer to came from Women's Legal Services NSW. They set out some very clear evidence, which I think is particularly relevant to the attempt by some to make out that there is a human rights aspect as to why this bill should be passed. The Women's Legal Services New South Wales submission stated:

We are not aware of evidence establishing that sex selective abortions occur in Australia or that Medicare funding has been used to this purpose. We also note that the Explanatory Memorandum and Second Reading Speech for the Bill material do not refer to any specific reports or research on these issues.

They go on to state:

… the Bill fails to identify and address the potential for erosion of human rights, for example, the risk of such legislation obstructing access to safe, affordable, legal reproductive health options, including abortion.

I would like to refer this submission to my colleagues in this place and also to anybody who reads about this issue. They go through various treaties and documents that Australia has signed on to and set out clearly how this bill is inconsistent with our international responsibilities and how damaging it could be in restricting the safe options that they have set out. Some of the treaties and conventions include: the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, 1979; the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 1989; the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, 1965; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966; and the 57th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Their analysis is very useful on how this bill is inconsistent with our responsibilities under that legislation.

There is also some useful information in the Family Planning New South Wales submission that I found touches in a very useful way on the issue of evidence. The issue of evidence, and the lack of it, is something that a number of speakers have taken up in this debate. Family Planning New South Wales said:

Last financial year we had around 28,000 client visits and in the 85 years we have been operating we have no evidence to suggest that pregnancy terminations occur solely on the basis of gender selection.

So there is evidence in the other direction that highlights why this legislation is not needed.

I also recommend that people look at the submission of Reproductive Choice Australia. They have some useful information about the consequences of this bill if it were adopted, particularly with regard to the Medicare rebate, which also needs attention. In their submission they said:

Moreover, the Medicare rebate Senator Madigan is proposing to restrict is also used to fund miscarriage and fetal death; there is no way to extricate numbers of voluntary terminations from unintended pregnancy endings.

That gets to the detail of the consequences of part of the provision of this bill that needs to be considered. In their submission, they also say:

The absence of evidence that a problem exists raises the question as to the real motives for the development of this bill. What is known is that Senator Madigan and his Democratic Labour Party …are opposed to every women, for any reason, having access to safe and legal abortion.

Again, I give emphasis to that. I was making reference to that in my opening remarks: the tactics. We need to look beyond this bill and why it is being introduced in this form. The comments from Reproductive Choice Australia pin that down. The comments that they made, in terms of the attitude of Senator Madigan and his Democratic Labor Party, are from the party's own documents—from Senator Madigan's comments to the Sydney Institute earlier this year in a speech called 'Integrity in politics' and from a Democratic Labor Party document called 'Frequently asked questions'.

I certainly acknowledge that this is a very challenging issue, but the attitudes in Australia have changed enormously. By far the majority of people recognise that women have a right to choose. In 2003, the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes looked at this issue. They found that 81 per cent of Australians agree that women should have the right to choose abortion. I think that is something we should keep in mind: the breadth of understanding and support for a woman's right to choose.

There is also some very useful information in the Public Health Association of Australia submission. This again takes up the issue of how this bill would actually work. They consider the restriction on the use of Medicare to fund sex-selective abortion and how that would be implemented. They state:

Restrictions of this nature would be untenable because of the practical difficulties they impose on both health professionals and women.

They give some examples:

      They go on to say:

      Restrictions on sex selective abortion in countries such as China and India have not proved successful. Moreover, restrictions on sex selective abortions, if introduced in Australia, have the potential to perpetuate racial and sexual discrimination by ‘stereotyping and racial profiling of Asian women whose motivations for an abortion would be under suspicion.’

      There are many concerning aspects about how this proposed legislation can play out. There is real complexity in the medical aspects of sex-selection abortion and whether it should be banned. The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and the National Association of Specialist Obstetricians and Gynaecologists both put in submissions that, again, I urge people to look at, in terms of the implications that could arise medically if such abortions were banned, because of decisions that doctors frequently need to make. There were certainly issues that I had not understood before and I found it very useful.

      So we have before us a bill that addresses a non-existent problem. As I said in my opening remarks, what is important here is that we need to ask why. The 'why' seems to be that what is attempted here is to assist to raise doubt in the community about the morality of women who choose abortions—that very right.

      This bill can be seen as a stepping stone to restricting those rights and to opening up this issue and, as I said, firing a shot across Mr Abbott's bow in terms of how he will operate the power that he wants to exercise. I think there are enormously damaging implications in the bill in both tactics and the actual basis of the bill itself. I certainly believe that it is a bill that should not be supported in any way.

      Debate adjourned.