profile of SydneyMorningHerald

Meet the man who wants to change our abortion laws

Words: Stephanie Peatling.

This article initially appeared in The National Times/ Sydney Morning Herald

Every once in a while they pop up, these old white men who feel they have a God-given right to meddle with women's bodies.

They are not quite as rampant in Australia as they are in America but their power is no less mighty.

Under John Howard's Coalition government that man was Brian Harradine, the wily Tasmanian with firm anti-abortion views.

Back in 1996 when John Howard was desperate to partly privatise Telstra, Harradine was the man whose voted he needed.

Part of the deal included a ban on the abortion drug mifepristone, or RU486, as well as a ban on any money from the foreign aid budget being spent on family planning and abortion in developing countries.

Both the bodies of Australian women and those in countries with much worse statistics on maternal health was happily traded away by the Coalition in exchange for the money it would gain by selling off Telstra.

It was a grubby deal that still serves as a reminder that women's reproductive rights are never secure.

Both those provisions were eventually dropped.

The ministerial ban on RU486 was overturned by a conscience vote of both houses of Parliament in 2006.

The ban on foreign aid spending went under prime minister Kevin Rudd in 2009.

Since then various people from Family First Senator Steve Fielding to National Party stalwart Ron Boswell have talked about the need for more action to wind back abortion rights.

There is a ginger group within the Labor Party called Labor for Life, which connects MPs with pro-life views on a range of issues including abortion.

Now it's the turn of John Madigan, the Democratic Labour Party senator from Victoria who got into the Senate in 2010 and could very well hold the balance of power after the next election.

This makes him a potentially very powerful person.

Madigan has acknowledged Harradine as a personal hero and a ''model senator'', but it remains to be seen whether he uses the Harradine handbook to advance his anti-abortion agenda.

If a 1996-type situation emerges next year or the one after and a government of either hue is desperate to get a piece of legislation through the Senate don't be too sure that they would not make such a deal again.

On Wednesday, Senator Madigan will introduce a motion in the Senate aimed at stopping the public funding of abortions that are used purely to select boys or girls.

He told my colleague Lenore Taylor that he had ''seen data that abortion on the basis of gender selection is happening overseas and that means it is likely to be happening here''.

Madigan also conceded it was ''difficult to get Australian data'' on the issue.

This is not about abortion on the basis of gender selection.

This is about trying to force the issue of access to abortion into the political equation.

Senator Madigan would be aware, as other pro-life MPs are, that the issue of the legality of abortion is not one for the federal government.

It's why we have such a shambolic approach to abortion law in Australia with vastly different laws depending on the state.

Where the Commonwealth does have a role is Medicare funding.

And that's where Madigan sees his chance.

His motion seeks to rule out public funding for abortions on the basis of gender selection.
Since he concedes it is ''difficult to get Australian data'' on the issue one presumes he has very little data to demonstrate the extent of the supposed issue, if there is any at all.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say he has none.

I make this call because when Opposition Leader Tony Abbott talked of 100,000 abortions a year back in 2004 he was forced to acknowledge there were no exact figures after the Australian Medical Association said the actual figure could be much lower.

This is because the Medicare line item that covers terminations also covers curettage (the procedure undergone by women who have had miscarriages) and medically advised abortions, such as in the case of ovarian cancer patients.

Today you won't hear Mr Abbott go anywhere near the topic of abortion other than to say the Coalition has no plans to change existing arrangements and that he believes abortion should be ''safe, legal and rare'', a statement gratefully repeated by many a politician ever since Bill Clinton popularised it in the early 1990s.

I'd be surprised if either of the major parties backed Senator Madigan's motion so it can be debated.

Labor can hardly support it without throwing away all their attempts to cast Tony Abbott as anti-women.

The Coalition can't support it because it remains very sensitive to this criticism.

But if Madigan is following the Harradine playbook then this is all about letting both sides know that should they need his vote after September 14 this is an issue he wants action on.

Photo: Rob Gunstone via SMH

profile of SydneyMorningHerald

1 comments so far..

  • nolly's avatar
    Commenter
    nolly
    Date and time
    Wednesday 27 Feb 2013 - 2:30 PM
    not a clever article. as is common, the first thing to attack when there is an opposing view in this issue is age, religious affiliation, or intelligence. this is an ad hominem way of arguing and doesnt add anything useful.
    This comment has been flagged.
    This comment has been marked for removal.
    This comment has been marked as spam and will be purged.

Previous article