This blog recently featured Paul O’Rourke’s outpouring of anger
about abortion. The Emily’s Voice CEO’s anger flowed at the misinformation being spread as Tasmania moves closer to legalising abortion. It is a righteous anger at injustice against society’s most vulnerable members, and at the lack of true concern for the women facing these situations.
But what does this have to do with a national election? Isn’t abortion a state issue?
While the laws regulating abortion are determined at state level, abortion is still a federal issue in some important ways.
Firstly, Commonwealth money is used to fund many abortions through Medicare rebates.
In 2008, former Senator Guy Barnett introduced a bill to stop Medicare funding for late-term abortions.
Late-term abortions are performed after 20 weeks, a point at which many premature babies can survive with medical intervention. Furthermore, scientists now understand that by this stage unborn babies can feel intense pain.
Public tax dollars are used to fund these late-term abortions despite a significant proportion of Australians opposing the practice. A 2010 survey published in the Medical Journal of Australia found that 28% believe second trimester abortion should be unlawful. This number jumps to 48% for abortions in the third trimester. Recent polling commissioned by Emily’s Voice revealed that 73% of respondents in Tasmania oppose abortion after 20 weeks.
Senator Barnett’s bill was sent to a Senate Committee and was eventually abandoned in the face of fierce opposition. At the Committee hearings, ACL’s then Chief-of-Staff Lyle Shelton argued that every Australian taxpayer has “blood on their Medicare card”. All of us who pay taxes contribute to Medicare rebates for late-term abortions.
Another disturbing aspect of the debate is sex-selection abortion. It is a major problem in parts of the world which culturally prefer boys, or where boys are economically more valuable to their parents. Countries such as India and China are missing tens of millions of girls due to the practice of aborting unborn females.
This year, Senator John Madigan introduced a bill that would stop Medicare funding for this kind of abortion. This bill also met with opposition, and debate has been stalled.
Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon claims sex-selection is not a problem in Australia. However, Dr Mark Hobart met with controversy and feared professional sanctions after refusing to refer a couple for an abortion. The couples’ justification was simple: they wanted a boy.
Yet Australians overwhelmingly oppose using abortion to discriminate against girls in this way. The Emily’s Voice poll found 92% of respondents opposed. Senator Madigan’s bill would not remove Medicare funding for most abortions. It would not even make sex-selection abortion illegal. It would simply prevent taxpayer’s money being used to support abortions based on a baby’s sex.
A further way abortion is a federal issue is through the abortion pill RU486. This drug was banned from Australia until 2006. Since then it has become more widely available in Australia despite growing concerns about its harm to women. One study found the drug to be a far more common cause of complications than surgical abortion. The Therapeutic Goods Administration admitted in 2012 that there had been more than 800 “adverse impacts on women” resulting from the use of RU486, with nearly 600 women requiring surgery.
Despite this, the Gillard Government this year decided to subsidise RU486 by placing it on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. This reduced the price from about $300 to as little as $12. For as little as $12, a woman can abort her pregnancy up to seven weeks using a pill known to be harmful, subsidised by the Commonwealth.
A final federal aspect of abortion is overseas aid. In 1996, the Howard Government prohibited any overseas development funding from being used to provide abortions. In 2009, the Rudd Government overturned this ban. This means that money going to assist development in the poorest parts of the world can be used to for abortions.
So we can see that abortion is a federal responsibility in a number of ways. Abortion advocates recognise this.
The Parliamentary Group on Population and Development is a non-partisan group of politicians that has actively engaged abortion in the Federal Parliament. They opposed Senator Barnett’s bill to ban Medicare funding for late-term abortions. They boast of their role in removing the ban on overseas funding for abortion, and in securing taxpayer-subsidised RU486 for Australian women.
The legality of abortion law may be primarily an issue to be sorted out by state parliaments. But it is certainly a federal matter as well.