Lies, damned lies and women’s bodies

Today has been a bad, sad, scary day in Parliament House for a bunch of reasons – more fear mongering that threatens to fracture our communities, the second attempt to tear down our protections against racial discrimination and yet another attack on women and their bodies.

Independent Senator John Madigan’s bill – Health Insurance Amendment (Medicare Funding for Certain Types of Abortion) Bill – aims to ban medicare payments for abortions that are based on gender. It was debated today in the Senate. Some of the comments from our elected representatives, and the fact that this bill appeared to be genuinely divisive, highlights just how fraught women’s reproductive rights still are in Australia.

First, stop rewriting science. It’s like climate change denialism all over again but this time it’s preoccupied with women’s uteruses and their decisions about their bodies. It’s deceptive, it’s a flagrant abuse of power and it is dangerous.

We make decisions as members of the public, at least in part, based on the information that you – our elected representatives – provide to us. Politicians like Liberal Senator Chris Black, Senator Eric Abetz, Senator Ian MacDonald, Senator Cory Bernardi and Independent Senator John Madigan (notice something they’ve all got in common?) deliberately mislead the Australian public in pursuit of their own ideological agenda against women’s reproductive rights.

Let’s start with Liberal Senator Chris Black.

He said, “foetuses have the capacity to somehow understand in circumstances they might not survive post-foetal life. Natural miscarrying does occur because of some innate capacity of the foetus to understand it won’t survive post-foetal life.”


I trawled medical literature on the university database today to find information about “prenatal perception”, “foetal cognitive function” even “foetal pain” and came up with piddly trickle of non-peer reviewed articles that all appeared to be funded by, written for or published by pro-life organistions or religious institutions. (You can find an actual scientific British study on foetal pain here, and a comprehensive summary of medical literature on foetal pain and the development of the thalamocortical fibers which allow pain to be experienced here. There is no evidence to suggest that the sixth sense develops before this point.)

In Australia, the right to abortion is enshrined in state legislation (state based criminal law – which is deeply disturbing for its own set of reasons – and health regulations) but all involve the principle of ‘viability’. This refers to the point at which the foetus could live outside of the mother’s uterus.

Conversely, the ‘personhood argument’, as it is sometimes called, is a common target for those with political agendas to restrict women’s access to abortions. It refers to the point in time at which the law deems a foetus to have the rights of a person. Zoe’s Law in NSW is an example of this type of ‘personhood argument’ where a bill was introduced that aimed to give foetuses legal personhood (which they currently do not acquire until birth) to protect pregnant women from harm that may be done to them (and their foetuses). It opens the door to anti-abortionists to use a personhood argument not to protect the rights of pregnant women who are violently assaulted or harmed, but instead to restrict the right of a woman to access safe, legal and accessible abortion.

Personhood is relevant here because in our largely rights-based understanding of the law and the world we accept that people have certain rights simply because they are people. Consciousness is a big part of our common understanding of what constitutes a person, and Senator Black’s comments use rhetoric that implies cognisance (of quite an extraordinary degree) of a foetus.

His comments have no factual basis.

Let’s turn now to Senator Bernardi

Senator Bernardi took this opportunity to restate his anti-abortion position. You may remember his comments earlier this year labelling women who support the right to choose as “pro-death” and that the number of abortions taking place in Australia was “horrendous and unacceptable”. He also referred to the medical practitioners who perform abortions as being part of a “death industry”.[1]

(He believes that the point of ‘personhood’ and corresponding rights begins at conception).

Today Senator Bernardi had the gall to call on the United Nations declaration on the rights of women in defence of the bill. Senator Bernardi is no champion of women (you may recall him ‘meow-ing’ at Senator Penny Wong, his consistent Islamophobic and sexist calls to ‘ban the burqua’, and accusations that women use abortion as birth control) and to frame his support of the bill as championing women’s rights is frankly appalling.

The United Nations has called upon its member states to ensure access to safe and legal abortion services. In 2011, Special Rapporteur on health as a human right, Arnand Grover, slammed states that used criminal laws or other restrictions to reduce access to family planning, contraception and abortion as “a violation of the right to health”.[2] It seems unlikely that Grover would appreciate Senator Bernardi twisting the words and principles of the United Nations for his own anti-abortion, anti-women ideology.

And finally the bill’s instigator, Senator John Madigan.

Senator Madigan first introduced this bill last year where it was met with the widespread criticism of not reflecting reality. On face value the bill may appear banal – banning medicare payments for abortions that are based on gender. It is generally accepted that abortion based on gender is reprehensible.

The issue is of course that according to the Australian Medical Association and the Public Health Association of Australia, there is no evidence that gender based abortions are occurring in Australia.

So why introduce a bill for which there is no need, and which the AMA and Public Health Association warn may discriminate against certain women and have negative consequences?[3] Either Senator Madigan chooses not to accept the evidence in front him and genuinely believes that Australia faces an undocumented crisis of gender based abortions, or this is an attempt to begin to dismantle women’s reproductive rights in Australia.

Senator Madigan self-professes to be “unashamedly pro-life”. In February last year he gave a speech before introducing this bill to Parliament and said: “There is no such thing as a safe abortion. Someone always dies.”

This seems like a good point to talk about the casualties of abortion.

Every year 21.6 million women have unsafe abortions around the world and 47,000 of them die because those abortions are unsafe. Women die when they don’t have access to safe abortions, and currently unsafe abortions account for 13% of all maternal deaths.[4]

As Greens Senator Richard Di Natale said today, when you curtail a woman’s right to choose, the number of women seeking abortions does not change, “the only thing that changes is that women die.” [5]

The bill was not voted on today and will rear its head again next year. Stay tuned (and unsettled by these attempts to tear down our reproductive rights).






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