Labor has made reproductive rights in Australia an election issue. Deputy leader Tanya Plibersek announced on Wednesday that a federal Labor government would legislate free abortions in public hospitals, tie federal funding for public hospitals to the provision of abortion services, expand access to contraception, and push for the decriminalisation of abortion in New South Wales and South Australia.
But access to abortion has thus far been governed by a messy patchwork of state legislation. What role does the federal government play, and how would Labor’s proposal change that?
Scott Morrison’s response to the announcement was to accuse Labor of “politicising” abortion, arguing abortion services were “rightly dealt with by the states and territories”. Of course for all that bluster, it’s not as if the Commonwealth has no purchase with how the states conduct their health services.
The federal government spends billions of dollars on public hospitals every year — hence Labor’s announcement that such funding would be conditional on providing abortion services.
While the focus of today’s coverage has been Labor’s attempts to “strong-arm” NSW and South Australia into decriminalising abortion, the issue does not simply concern the legality of performing abortions. There are also practical issues around affordability and access; for example, in Tasmania abortion is legal, but women have had to travel interstate for surgical abortions after the last clinic closed in January 2018. The federal government has the power to address this.
Apart from improving availability of abortion services in hospitals, the federal government has a role to play in the regulation of chemical abortions. The most prominent example is the drug RU486, which has a long history as a bete noire of conservative blokes (it’s always blokes) in parliament.
In 1996, then-prime minister John Howard offered hard right Tasmanian independent Brian Harradine several anti-abortion concessions in return for his vote on Telstra privitisation, contributing to a ban on the drug.
More consequently for Australia, the Therapeutic Goods Act was amended so that importation of RU486 and other abortion drugs required specific ministerial approval — a restriction that only applied to drugs intended for medication abortions. This stood for nearly a decade until a coalition of women senators from Labor, the Australian Democrats, the Liberals and Nationals collaborated to force parliament’s hand. The ministerial veto over RU486 was repealed.
Labor’s proposal also includes a commitment expanding contraceptive access, potentially involving a similar agreement to one in New Zealand where patients can get a three-year prescription of contraceptive pills from their GP.
Medicare and ‘gender selective’ abortions
Some federal funding is allocated to abortion and contraceptive devices through Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, making it another area targeted by conservative blokes — and we really can’t emphasise enough that is literally always blokes — in parliament. One of many talking points imported wholesale from the US is the issue of so-called “sex selective” abortions (abortions that take place entirely because the parent or parents don’t want a boy or a girl).
Hard-right senators have used this as a way to attack reproductive rights. Former Victorian Democratic Labour Party senator John Madigan introduced the Health Insurance Amendment (Medicare Funding for Certain Types of Abortion) Bill in 2013, the purpose of which is to outlaw Medicare funding for abortions. Australian Conservatives Senator Cory Bernardi introduced a motion to the same effect in 2017.
Madigan’s bill got tied up in the Finance and Public Administration Committee and he lost his seat before it could be put to a vote. Bernardi’s motion didn’t pass, but attracted the votes of the LNP’s Barry O’Sullivan, Matt Canavan, Eric Abetz, Zed Seselja and Anne Ruston, as well as One Nation MPs.
Ruston’s vote was particularly surprising, given she had made the argument during the debate over Madigan’s bill, four years earlier, that there was “no evidence to suggest that the termination of pregnancies in Australia for sex selection purposes is actually occurring”.
While Labor’s plan doesn’t address gender selective abortions, they’ve announced they will review the Medicare rebate around medical terminations to address “affordability and access issues”. Regardless, the ongoing debate demonstrates this is scarcely the first time federal politicians have sought to “politicise” abortion.