Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Respecting Women's Choices and Voices

By Anne O'Rourke -

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.

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.

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.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Will you stand for choice?

In 1944 Melbourne, Gloria, 33, was the mother of five children - all under 10 years of age.

During her husband’s leave from War Service, she became pregnant.
With five children and her husband away, Gloria knew that she could not cope with a sixth child.

She went to a backyard abortionist, and paid with her life.
Gloria was found bleeding in an alleyway and taken to hospital - where she died.

Fortunately for us, women took her story, and the story of thousands like her - and made a stand for choice.

Thanks to these women we now have the right to choose what happens to our bodies.

We have access to safe termination - should we need it one day.

But this simple right is being challenged. It’s hard to believe!

Who would have thought that in 2005 we would be faced with this issue again?

Unfortunately, some rogue politicians are now trying to impose restrictions on the availability of safe abortion to all women - regardless of circumstance.

C’mon girls! Stand together. Let’s show that our right to choose is not negotiable.

In reading this, you now have a decision to make…

The Pro-Choice Coalition needs your help.
You can stand with us - or risk a return to the past.

Here are two things you can do:

1. Come to our “Standing for Choice” forum:7pm Tuesday 8 March at the YWCA, 489 Elizabeth Street Melbourne.
Bring your friends, family, partners, neighbours - everyone!

2. Forward this email to at least 10 people - we need to get the word out.

For more information visit our website at

Speakers include:
Jocelynne Scutt: Human rights lawyer and former Anti-Discrimination commissioner.

Leslie Cannold: Author of “The Abortion Myth”

Susie Allanson: Clinical Psychologist, Fertility Control Clinic, East Melbourne.

Gael Jennings (Chair): Radio broadcaster and former 7.30 report presenter.

Abbott and abortion: lodging a religious bid

PerspectiveBy Terry LaneFebruary 27, 2005

The reaction to the Tony Abbott-finds-his-son tear-jerker has been interesting. No doubt in some circles where abortion is considered a sin there are people saying: "Aw, isn't that nice! What an excellent man Mr Abbott is." While around the parts where I live and move, the reaction has been: "What's he up to now?"

For the cynics it is unthinkable that there is not some personal gain in this story for Mr Abbott. The Australian media are not like the British equivalent. We give politicians a lot of space in which to live their personal lives, so the Abbott revelations are of his own choosing.
Attempts have been made to tar Mr Abbott as a hypocrite and, because the charge involved his personal life before politics and also necessarily entangled other people in the revelations, it was left alone.

Mr Abbott may be clearing the decks for a rough anti-abortion campaign which he may be hoping will go so well that the Lodge is within his easy reach, carried there on the votes of the Catholic and fundamentalist Protestant true believers.

Obscurantist religion is beginning to play a part in Australian politics, akin to the US, and here an even smaller cohort of true believers can sway an election, thanks to our preferential voting.
Two enlightened Liberal politicians in marginal electorates stand to lose their seats in the WA election this weekend, thrown out by the anti-abortion faction. Tony Abbott is no doubt reading the signs and saying: "If George W. can get into the White House on the vote of the religious right then the Lodge is mine."

Abortion is a matter of state law, but if the Federal Government declares itself against abortion and removes termination from the Medicare schedule for refunds, then it can only be a matter of time before the aspirants to state government read the signs and start falling into line. And then what?

THIS is the aspect of the abortion argument that no one seems to be considering - imagine that abortion again becomes a crime; what will the penalties be for the woman seeking the termination and the doctor performing the operation?

In 1969, in judgement on a doctor who had performed an abortion, Judge Menhennit handed down his famous ruling: ". . . for therapeutic abortion to be lawful I think that the accused must have honestly believed on reasonable grounds that the act done by him was necessary to preserve the woman from some serious danger. As to the element of danger, it appears to me in principle that it should not be confined to danger to life but should apply equally to danger to physical or mental health. . ."

Since 1969, a woman can terminate a pregnancy without shame or fear, and doctors can treat terminations as they would any other procedure, even though the Crimes Act still sets penalties of 10 years in prison for the woman and five for the doctor. Go directly to jail and collect your Medicare refund on the way. It would be amusing if it were not so serious.
Are these the penalties Mr Abbott and Senator Ron Boswell will impose on women and their doctors? Because, without the fear of sanctions, nothing is going to change.

All the oleaginous blather about the sanctity of foetal life and convenient reunions with long-lost children will not make women go through with unwanted pregnancies. And if doctors are too frightened to perform the operation, backyard butchers will do the job.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Paternally Yours

There's more to being a "dad" than just being the biological father of a child, writes Leslie Cannold.

John Howard thinks it a wonderful story but I have my doubts. First, there’s the hypocrisy of the career politician largely responsible for the re-politicisation of the abortion issue – the one who introduced the latest chapter of his personal saga with the claim that adoptee Daniel O'Connor's first words to him were “Thanks for having me” – pleading with the media not to use the story as a “political football”. Then there’s the repeated description of Health Minister Tony Abbott as a “father” reunited with his long lost “son”.
Father? Son? Pardon me, but the last time I checked father had a precise legal meaning, not to mention widely understood social connotations. A father is a parent with both legal rights to and responsibilities for a particular child. Dads are men who aren’t just, or even necessarily, “there” at the time of conception but who do the hard daily work of raising children to adulthood. As I understand the story so far, Abbott has no claim to either paternal title where Daniel O’Connor is concerned.
But someone does. Indeed, one can only imagine the way O’Connor’s adoptive father is feeling about the way his years of paternal commitment and devotion have been swept aside by what seems to be viewed as Abbott’s trumping claim of biological paternity. Not to mention the exposure of his fertility status, as well as other aspects of his history, to public scrutiny.
How did we all get so confused about who is – and is not – a father? The main culprit is the DNA paternity test. For the first time in history, it allows paternity to stand beside maternity as a matter of fact, rather than inference. In the Hawke era, the test was seen as a tool for alleviating child poverty without increasing taxpayer pain. The idea was simple. While the older definition of fatherhood as the man married to a child’s mother had - in a world of climbing divorce rates and single mother households – led to increasing numbers of children lacking fiscal support from a father, biological definitions of fatherhood were more bulletproof. To put it simply, while some kids lack a social father, every child has a biological one. Having handily applied the ancient mentality usually reserved for women of “you play, you pay” to men, fiscal support of children became as easy as D-N-A. The Child Support (Assessment) Act was born.
Courts, both here and overseas, have rigorously supported the new biological definition of fatherhood. They have not only applied it to men who contracted in writing with the mother to just donate sperm, but to blokes with a mental disability or who were unconscious or even under age – and thus a victim of statutory rape – when sex took place. The only exceptions have been federal and state laws that make the husbands of women treated in IVF clinics with anonymous sperm the legal fathers of any resulting children.
As this potted history shows, the downsides of calling sperm donors “fathers” are significant. Not just for step- and adoptive dads, but for men in general.
But the biggest losers are children. As high-profile “paternity fraud” cases reveal, when deceived men go into a tale-spin about their wife’s infidelity, some take their rage out on the children. Not only do these fellas spend years in court seeking to shrug off legal responsibility for children they have raised from babyhood, but some pursue “refunds” for amounts paid and services rendered, too.
Not surprisingly, and as these men know all too well, this behaviour sounds the death knell for their relationship with the children they once called theirs. Not to mention the damage such protracted public rejection does to these kids’ self-esteem and capacity to trust.
It doesn’t need to be this way. In the wake of DNA testing, the legal and social definition of a father quickly changed from the man married to the child’s mother to the one whose sperm was involved in conception. There’s no reason our understandings couldn’t evolve again. All that’s needed is a commitment from society to share the cost with mothers of raising children when there’s no real dad around.
And who is a real dad? He isn’t a sperm donor. Instead, he’s a man able to put his callow needs and ambitions to one side and commit himself not just to the hard daily work of raising kids, but to never letting those children down.
Dr Leslie Cannold is an ethicist at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne and the author of What, no baby? Why women are losing the freedom to mother, and how they can get it back. (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2005).

Monday, February 07, 2005

Marie Stopes Release 03/02/05

3 February 2005 - For immediate release

Australia’s leading sexual and reproductive healthcare organisation, Marie Stopes International, today voiced concern over Senator Ron Boswell’s motives for issuing questions on notice to Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott on the number of abortions being carried out in Australia.

Marie Stopes International’s Australian CEO, Suzanne Dvorak, said that there was a need for the Commonwealth Government to collect more accurate abortion statistics, but that the reason for collecting this information should not be to push a personal agenda.

“Senator Boswell has a right to seek further information about the issue, but at the same time the Australian general public also has a right to know his real intentions for doing so,” she said.

“Australians should be concerned if the questions have been lodged for the sole reason of further restricting a woman’s access to termination services.

“Statistics that are available confirm that the vast majority of terminations performed in Australia are within the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

“The fact is women will continue to seek access to termination services and the wrong political action can pressure women into taking significant health risks.”

The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 2003, conducted by the Centre for Social Research at the ANU, found that over 80% of Australians agree with a women’s right to choose an abortion [1].

A major research study recently published by Marie Stopes International and Quantum Market Research also found that 84% of general practitioners (GPs) believe all women should have access to termination services [2].

“Research shows that the majority of Australian’s support a woman’s right to have an abortion,” Ms Dvorak said.

“Political parties should support the rights of women to determine their own reproductive lives – regardless of the personal beliefs of individual parliamentary members.

“Specific religious doctrine concerning abortion should also not dictate government policy concerning access to abortion services for women facing an unplanned pregnancy.

“Women must be able to make their own decision about whether to have a termination - and politicians should assist this process by ensuring that they are provided with access to un-biased information, support and the highest medical care.”

Marie Stopes International is a not-for-profit sexual and reproductive healthcare provider, with centres in the ACT, Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia. The organisation offers a range of services, including abortion, vasectomy, female sterilisation, sexually transmitted infection check-ups and contraception. Surplus proceeds from Australian activities support the work of the Marie Stopes International Partnership, which delivers sexual and reproductive health services to over four million people in 37 countries worldwide.

1. Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (AuSSA) 2003, ACSPRI Centre for Social Research (ACSR) - Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University.
2. General Practitioners: Attitudes to Abortion – Marie Stopes International & Quantum Market Research, November 2004

For more information on Marie Stopes International, visit

Friday, February 04, 2005

Press Conference

Media release - media release – media release

Sunday 6 February, 1.00pm
YWCA Victoria
489 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne

“Never Again? Challenging the Anti Abortion Agenda”

Cathy Mead, National President, Public Health Association of Australia:

Marilyn Beaumont, Executive Director, Women’s Health Victoria:

Anne O’Rourke, Vice-President, Liberty Victoria:

Susie Allanson, Clinical Psychologist, Fertility Control Clinic:

Shannon Keebaugh, Project Worker, The Council of Single Mothers and Their Children:

Professor Julia Shelley, Australian Research Centre for Sex Health and Society.


Note - Upcoming Public Meeting:
Tuesday March 8, 7.00pm, The Function Room, YWCA Victoria, 489 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne.

Media release - media release – media release

JOIN OUR EMAIL LIST * Women's Health Victoria * Liberty Victoria * Council Of Single Mothers And Their Children * Public Health Association of Australia * Fertillity Control Clinic * Australian Research Centre for Sex Health and Society * Emily's List * YWCA Victoria *