The Guardian 9 February, 2005

Resist attack on right to choose

Andrew Jackson

The stranglehold of the religious right on the Howard government has been further exposed by Prime Minister John Howard's backflip this week on the issue of re-opening the "debate" on abortion.

As recently as last November Mr Howard explicitly ruled out any changes to existing abortion legislation or a parliamentary inquiry on the issue. He also publicly warned Tony Abbott — Health Minister and anti-abortion zealot — to keep his personal views and parliamentary role separate: "… he obviously mustn't and won't do anything in the administration of the health portfolio that conflicts with the existing [abortion] arrangements".

On Mr Abbot's repeated attempts to bring his campaign into the public arena Mr Howard said at the time, "I think if people want more quiet discussion and reflection on this issue, it is best that it occur in a quiet and reflective way".

However, this week Mr Howard not only encouraged debate but has tacitly encouraged conservative parliamentarians to introduce new legislation into federal parliament.

"If somebody put forward a private member's bill, and there seemed to be a strong desire to have a debate about it, then I think the sensible thing would be to allow it to be debated. It would be silly not to", said Mr Howard.

Mr Howard reiterated his personal opposition to abortion and has changed his "no changes to the legislation" stance to "there is not a majority in parliament to pass any changes".

Beazley ducks and weaves

Opposition leader Kim Beazley weighed into the debate with a statement that does little to diminish his reputation for obfuscation, or for that matter differentiate his position from the Prime Minister's.

"I'm opposed to abortion. That is an individual moral stance. I do not believe that the Australian people accept it as a matter of criminal sanctions. This is a personal view, but I do think it involves issues of life."

In another interview he offered "…this is a pluralistic society and therefore those people who have my view, operate in the realm of moral suasion, operate in the realm of encouraging folk to make support services for women who find themselves pregnant and families affected so they can make effective choices. You don't subject folk to criminal sanctions."

Mr Beazley's equivocal stance allowed The Australian to headline page five of one issue with "Beazley speaks up against abortion".

Mr Beazley did not say unequivocally "I support a woman's right to choose" and the "criminal sanctions" he talks about are not the issue in this debate — yet.

Two-pronged attack

The legislation to be introduced by private members bill is about withdrawing Medicare funding of late-term abortions. This is not a criminal sanction in the legal sense, but it would put a safe abortion out of reach of many women.

However, this is the thin edge of a wedge being driven by both the religious right and economic rationalists to achieve dual aims — the roll-back of progressive social legislation and personal liberties and the destruction of our publicly-funded health scheme Medicare.

Queensland National Party Senator Ron Boswell has been the standard bearer in the anti-abortion crusade. Mr Boswell has tabled in parliament nine questions to be answered by his co-conspirator Health Minister Tony Abbott seeking answers to what they have both now referred to as the abortion "epidemic".

The information requested includes: the number and percentage of abortions and whether they are performed in public or private hospitals and clinics; data on age, income, marital status, number of children, previous abortions, reason for procedure and geographical location of the women; and the cost and details of providers.

Requesting "the cost" is telling

The Government knows the public will strongly resist any wholesale attempt to destroy Medicare.

Instead the Government is seeking ways to dismantle Medicare piecemeal — and restricting funding for abortions will only be the first step in cutting funding for many types of so-called "elective" surgery. It reinforces the neo-liberal policy trend established with the attempted introduction of "co-payments" for Medicare-funded services.

CPA policy

The Communist Party of Australia has long been a supporter of women's reproductive rights, including the right to a safe, legal abortion provided free under the national health care system.

In 1931, the Working Women's Conference, organised by the Party, unanimously passed a motion — radical at the time — supporting: "the rights of every man and woman to determine the size of their families. To make child bearing a voluntary function we must demand that birth control knowledge which is today monopolised by the rich, be made available to the millions of mothers of our class, many of whom lose their lives or endanger their health though ignorance and the dread of giving birth to another child…"

But "reproductive rights" goes much further than a choice whether to have the baby or have an abortion.

It also includes the necessity for sex education in schools. Contraception — including the "morning after pill" — must be easily accessible.

And should a woman choose to have a child there must be a national paid maternity leave scheme — as is currently available in all industrialised countries of the world except Australia and the United States.

The must be a federally-funded scheme to provide free, quality childcare for all children.

The Single Parent's Pension must be retained, without the current or additional (as planned by the government) "mutual obligation" requirements.

A working woman's right to care for that child must be protected: a woman must not fear dismissal for taking maternity leave or discrimination in the workplace for having — or intending to have — children. The right to Carer's Leave must be also be upheld.

And the millions of Australian women who work in casual employment must be accorded the same rights and benefits as those in permanent employment.

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