You're right to be concerned about Abbott and abortion
Julia Gillard pretty much can’t open her mouth at the moment without being accused of playing the gender card, whether it’s expressing her ire at the opposition making explicit insults about her sexual attractiveness, denying she’s only where she is because of discriminatory gender quotas in the Labor party, or suggesting that Australians should be concerned about having their reproductive health rights rolled back under an Abbott government.
“We don't want to live in an Australia where abortion again becomes the political plaything of men who think they know better,” she said last week while addressing the Women for Gillard group in Sydney, and the response from the other side of the aisle was immediate.“Julia Gillard knows full well that the Coalition will not change abortion laws and she should apologise for these inflammatory remarks,” bleated Julie Bishop, the sole prominent Liberal MP who also has lady parts. And it wasn’t just politicians who took issue: feminist writer Eva Cox was also critical of Gillard’s statement, correctly pointing that abortion is a state issue in any case.
It’s an easy dodge: Liberal MP Christopher Pyne said the same thing on Q&A last year, declaring “Tony Abbott has said he has no intention of going anywhere near the abortion laws in Australia which, by the way, are state-based laws.”
Now, let’s be clear about this. It’s true that Abbott can’t directly ban abortion, for example as health policy is determined by the lawmakers in each state and territory. This is why the conditions around access to terminations vary so widely depending on where you are.
So, it’s a state issue and not a federal one, so it’s all cut and dried, then? Not at all.
The money for health service provision comes in large part from the Federal government. The major way that this occurs is through Medicare funding of medical procedures, and through subsidising prescription drugs under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS).
What an Abbott government could do is pass legislation imposing conditions on what termination services and medications Medicare and the PBS will and will not cover in public hospitals and health centers. This wouldn’t “ban” abortions per se, but it would dramatically limit access to them for those who can’t afford to get one themselves.
In fact, for a man who has railed so passionately about how abortion shouldn’t be a matter of a woman’s convenience, it would effectively limit terminations to those with the resources to use private sector services: in other words, those with the most options. You might even say, those for whom an unplanned pregnancy would be the least inconvenient.What would make Gillard suspicious that an Abbott government would seek to limit services via Medicare or by restricting access to medication?
The fact that he’s already tried to do exactly that.
Kate Gleeson gives a beautiful summary of it at The Conversation, but these are the main points: in 2005, when Abbott was the Howard government’s health minister, the aforementioned Pyne introduced the Health Legislation Amendment Bill into Parliament. The bill sought to “clarify the scope and power to make Medicare tables”, but Schedule 3 within the bill drew a great deal of attention.
Schedule 3 sought to give the health minister power to “determine that Medicare benefits are not payable in specific circumstances”. Among the things that it could decide not to stump up for were, in the ominously vague language of the bill, items which “the government does not wish to fund through Medicare”.
This may have passed with little debate had it not followed Abbott’s attempt to refuse permission for the termination drug RU-486 to be imported into Australia. The following year a conscience vote by Parliament embarrassingly took the power out of his hands and into those of the Therapeutic Drugs Administration, although it took until last year for it to be freely available in Australia, after reproductive health advocacy and education group Marie Stopes International set up its own distribution company to import it – and, as coincidence would have it, there is currently an application for RU-486 to be included on the PBS.
Schedule 3 therefore looked awfully like a way of getting politically-motivated drug bans in through the backdoor and after a good deal of criticism from within and without Parliament, Abbott was forced to drop that section from the bill.
And all that might be ancient history, were it not for the fact that Victorian DLP senator John Madigan tried to pull a similar stunt earlier this year by attempting to introduce a law restricting terminations when performed for “gender-selective” reasons despite there being no serious evidence that such a thing actually happens in Australia. It was most likely a stunt to show the Libs what his support will cost in the far-from-impossible situation that he gets the balance of power in the Senate after the election, but it also shows that this is far from a dead issue.
And for all of his harrumphing about having no plans to change the law, Abbott presumably still stands by his 2004 speech “The Ethical Responsibilities of a Christian Politician”, since it remains on his website. That’s the speech which contains the oft-quoted lines “The problem with the contemporary Australian practice of abortion is that an objectively grave matter has been reduced to a question of the mother’s convenience… Even those who think that abortion is a woman’s right should be troubled by the fact that 100,000 Australian women choose to destroy their unborn babies every year.”
(Parenthetically: that number is also an exaggeration, incidentally: while figures are hard to accurately collect because of differences in reporting from state to state, and also because miscarriages are classified as “abortive outcomes” under the criteria of Medicare stats, the Australian Bureau of Statistics concludes there are a total of around 76,000 terminations per year.)
It may not be a priority for an Abbott government, and Gillard may have been attempting to shore up her feminist credentials to an audience of women. But make no mistake, abortion is still an issue – for Australian women, and for Tony Abbott.