The Guardian 4 May, 2005

IVF: Abbott pushes Christian Right agenda

Andrew Jackson

The Federal government’s “family friendly” façade took a battering last week as Ministers Abbott and Costello touted budget cutbacks to IVF treatment under Medicare.

Receiving near-unanimous condemnation, the government plans to restrict publicly-subsidised IVF treatment to three attempts per year for women under age 42, and three attempts in total for women aged 42 and over.

As with abortion, IVF is a medical procedure and as such its use is best determined by medical professionals and patients, not by Abbott or Parliament or by arbitrary decisions unrelated to individual patients’ circumstances.

A Medicare rebate for IVF treatment was first introduced by the Hawke Labor Government in 1990. Ironically, it was the Howard government, under the direction of Health Minister Michael Wooldridge, that removed the cap on the number of publicly-funded treatments each woman was allowed.

The only current limitation on publicly-funded IVF treatment is a recommendation the procedure not be undertaken by women over 50.

The change in policy perhaps reflects the change in Health Ministers: Michael Wooldridge was a medical doctor prior to entering Parliament; new Minster Tony Abbott is a Liberal career politician, and well-known Christian right extremist.

Earlier this year it became clear that Tony Abbott intends to dictate health policy in line with his religious views when he declared his personal moral objection to abortion, and encouraged a “re-opening of the debate” on the legality of the procedure.

He also has stated a strong moral objection to stem-cell research.

Low-cost babies only?

Treasurer Peter Costello has denied there is a religious anti-IVF agenda in play, just that — as The Sydney Morning Herald put it — he wants to give taxpayers “more babies for bucks”.

“It is a question of ensuring that those treatments that the taxpayer pays for are treatments that have a decent chance of success.”

“Where the chances of success are very low — nobody is saying you can’t do it — but where the chances are very low, the taxpayer ought to direct the funding to where the chances are higher”, Mr Costello said.

The statement indicates that the government’s class-allegiance will still override any moral objections. IVF itself is not being restricted, only public funding of the procedure.

Yet at a cost of approximately $7500 per attempt, the procedure is unlikely to be affordable to the vast majority of Australian women seeking it. This means extended IVF treatment becomes a luxury purchase afforded only by wealthier women — most likely living in blue-ribbon Liberal seats.

It must be asked if the government is planning to apply this principle to other medical procedures?

Mr Costello says: “The medical advice to us is three cycles a year is optimal.”

However, the “medical advice” obtained by the government appears not to have been given by the Australian Medical Association (AMA), which has come out strongly against re-introducing a cap on IVF.

AMA President, Dr Bill Glasson, labeled the Government’s speculated Budget cut to IVF as “a callous attack on the dreams of hopeful women and families, which further diminishes the government’s health credentials”.

“The IVF decision defies commonsense as it will harm a vulnerable section of the community for a reported paltry Budget saving of $7 million a year.

“People do not undertake IVF treatments lightly. It is a highly emotional and expensive decision that sets women and families on an uncertain path to a cherished dream — a child or children denied them by other methods.

“There is no place for misguided Government intervention and penny-pinching in this important doctor-patient relationship. Every IVF patient has individual situations, circumstances and needs but one thing they do have in common is a desperate desire to have a child.

“The government’s decision fails any test of equity, fairness or compassion and must be ditched immediately.”

It must be asked, however, why John Howard would risk his “family friendly” façade over a paltry $7 million.

Indeed, when his track record is taken into account this latest cutback to publicly-funded IVF takes on a more sinister undertone.

In 2001 a single woman, who had been denied IVF treatment in Victoria under that state’s “women in married or de facto relationships only” IVF rules, successfully took the Victorian state government to the Federal Court claiming the law contravened the federal Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

The Howard government jumped in immediately and introduced legislation to amend the Act to allow state governments to discriminate against single and lesbian women in IVF treatment. The amendment was blocked by the combined votes of Labor, the Democrats and Greens.

Undeterred, and flagrantly flouting the principle of “separation of church and state”, John Howard then requested the Catholic Church to appeal the mater in the High Court in a bid to have the decision overturned.

The Catholic Bishops’ Con­ference willingly obliged, but after a strongly fought case by the Women’s Electoral Lobby and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission the motion was denied.

The Government’s proposed cuts to IVF may indicate a new tack in forcing through its moral agenda: rather than legislating directly to remove the rights of women it will cut funding to services that benefit them. This approach is also evidenced by its proposed harsh new regime designed to throw single parents out of the welfare system.

Moral agenda aside, there are also indicators that the government’s stance on this issue may be and indicator of budget desperation.

A slowing economy and rising interest rates may mean lower revenue projections for the upcoming financial year, and may put a strain on the government’s promised agenda of tax cuts for businesses and the rich, and extra billions for the military.

The furore and mass media coverage of the IVF cutbacks may well direct the public’s attention away from cuts that will be made in other areas — particularly in welfare spending.

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