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is abortion still an election issue?

Image via the ABC

Image via the ABC

In June earlier this year, then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered a harrowing speech, warning Australians of the implications for women’s rights regarding abortion if Tony Abbott was to become Prime Minister. Cautioning Australians about voting for Mr Abbott, Ms Gillard stated that women risked effectively losing their autonomy over the abortion issue, saying ‘We don’t want to live in an Australia where abortion again becomes the political plaything of men who think they know better.’

At the time of making this statement, Ms Gillard was widely criticised by some parts of the media and the Opposition for playing the so called ‘gender card.’ At the time, Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop called on Ms Gillard to retract her comments and apologise. ‘Julia Gillard knows full well that the Coalition will not change laws regarding abortion and for her to raise this as an election issue is offensive.’

Even within the Labor Party Ms Gillard’s statement was met with comments that abortion was not an item on the election agenda. Labor Backbencher Stephen Jones questioned the statement, saying in an interview with the ABC ‘I think that the 2013 election should be faced up around the big policy issues, as important as that one [abortion] is.’

Since Ms Gillard’s replacement by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, it would seem that neither side have rehashed the debate, which would seemingly reinforce the critiques levelled at Ms Gillard that this is not an election issue. However, it is due to this very silence that Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon has warned voters on being complacent on the issue when it comes to voting tomorrow.

In an article published in the New Matilda, Senator Rhiannon reassesses Ms Gillard’s speech and writes that politicians have been worryingly silent on an issue that is central to women’s rights and well-being. Far from being a non-issue, Senator Rhiannon argues that abortion remains a hotly contested position for all levels of politics and warns against the move in some political areas to ‘wind back the clock on women’s rights.’

So is Senator Rhiannon right? Is abortion an issue in tomorrow’s election?

Law regarding abortion

The law surrounding abortion is a matter of State and Territory jurisdiction. It is worth noting that in every state except Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory that the legislation dealing with abortion is the relevant Crimes Act or Criminal Code. Whilst not necessarily criminalising abortion, couching the issue in terms of criminality affects the outcome of discussions around what is effectively a women’s health and human rights’ issue.

What’s more, having abortion a matter for each State or Territory means that the accessibility and options for women regarding abortion can vary drastically from each jurisdiction.

History of Federal Regulation of Abortion

Despite these issues, one might ask what has a matter for the States and Territories got to do with a Federal election? It is true that the two jurisdictions are separate, however (as Senator Rhiannon points out), this does not prevent the potential of federal interaction.

Indeed an examination of Australia’s history regarding abortion shows many instances where the Federal government has regulated abortion. Most notably in 1996, the then Liberal Prime Minister John Howard struck a deal with independent Senator Brian Harradine.

In exchange for Senator Harradine’s support for the legislation privatising Telstra, the government agreed to restrictions regarding abortion. Specifically these included an amendment to the Therapeutic Goods Act which required specific approval from the Health Minister for the importation of abortion drugs (such as RU486), and the introduction of guidelines for AusAID which prohibited family planning agencies from offering any services relating to abortion.

This ministerial approval requirement was repealed in 2006, however it is worth noting that for the period from 2003-2007 the now Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was the Health Minister in the Howard government, and therefore the man given the right to veto the importation of RU486 should he see fit. At the time, Mr Abbott is on record as blocking the drug RU486 and stating that he thought ‘abortion is the easy way out.’

Current challenges to abortion

Acknowledging that there are State and Territory challenges (and for a summary of the debate in NSW see Clementine Ford’s article here), there are also Federal initiatives that challenge the regulation of abortions in Australia.

In particular, Democratic Labor Party Senator John Madigan has actively campaigned on the issue to stop ‘gender selection abortions’. His Private Member’s Bill entered earlier this year and set before a Senate Standing Committee, is opposed to the use of Medicare rebates for these abortions based upon gender.

Whilst the matter is still hotly debated, Mr Madigan is on record as saying he will use any position to further this issue should he be holding any balance of power for an Abbott government; a scenario which could be likely depending on the outcome of the vote tomorrow. Despite his assertions, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has dismissed Mr Madigan’s position, saying that he ‘doesn’t do deals.

What are the Parties’ positions?

Whilst an examination of the ALP, Greens and Liberal/National’s page for a search on ‘abortion’ is not necessarily clear, reports have detailed the following positions in relation to the three major parties:

Australian Labor Party

The Labor Party has stated that it supports a conscience vote on the issue of abortion if it ever came before the Federal Parliament. However, it would appear that for the meantime the party is content with leaving regulation to the States and Territories.

Liberal/National Coalition

Despite his previous position as Health Minister for the Howard Government, Mr Abbott has repeatedly insisted that if elected Prime Minister he will not change abortion laws, nor ban the abortion drug RU486.

The Greens

The Greens have stated that they support abortion and believe all women should have access to ‘legal, free and safe pregnancy termination services, including unbiased counselling.’

Is abortion an election issue?

From the indicia of what has been put out into the public this campaign, it would appear that none of the three major parties have any plans to alter current abortion regulations. However, as the history with the previous Howard Government and current moves by members such as Mr Madigan demonstrate, the issue is never entirely off the legislative table. Therefore, voters should remain vigilant and informed well beyond tomorrow, to ensure that their voices are heard on a contentious and important issue for all women.


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