Australia’s Federal Health Minister, Tony Abbott, is one of my least favourite people. He’s been on an anti-abortion kick for the last few years, and the recent jewel in his attack is a government-funded pregnancy counselling hotline which allegedly aims to help women make informed choices.
This doesn’t sound like a bad idea, right? A big part of feminism is about making sure women have the ability to make informed choices, and the resources available so that ability can be utilised in the fullest manner. So why do I have an issue? Well, let’s talk about that.
From what the Minister is quoting this month, there are about 84,000 abortions a year performed in Australia. For the Minister, this figure is too high. He’s been claiming it’s too high for some time now (then again, when he started really hammering this issue in the last couple of years he was claiming the figure was as high as 100,000, so I must admit I’m skeptical of his grasp of the figures), even aside from the fact that the abortion rate has been dropping over the last decade. The hotline is explicitly in place with an aim to reduce the abortion rate. Perhaps, for some, that’s not a particularly awful goal. The question in that case is whether a hotline is the best way to go about the problem.
“One of the interesting questions is: is this the best way of dealing with it. Surely we want to stop people getting pregnant rather than cutting down the number of abortions once they are pregnant.”Eva Cox, Women’s Electoral Lobby. In “Giving Pause to the Pregnant“, in The Australian
I think it’s fairly obvious that Cox is advocating better information about contraception. And whilst Australia’s not going down the US route of providing government funding for abstinence programs, the comment’s not surprising, given Mr. Abbott was recently interviewed on Triple J’s (Australia’s youth radio station, part of the public broadcaster network) current affairs progam, Hack [mirror] talking about his opposition to Australia becoming a so-called “condom culture”. [Note: Link is to an mp3 of the segment. The interview with Abbott starts about 1/3 of the way in.]
That’s not all of Mr. Abbott’s complaints about culture. In a recent article, he has a bit to say about ‘cultural conditioning':
“Once upon a time, women who found themselves pregnant were culturally conditioned to have the baby and have it adopted out. These days, there is very different cultural conditioning.”
The “once upon a time” is telling language. Invoking the idea of fairy tales when talking about women being culturally conditioned into carrying a pregnancy is, plain and simple, to romanticise the notion of forcing women to give birth. Also, I’m always quite baffled by the tendency of anti-choice politicians to act as though their voices on abortion are so completely powerless against pro-choicers, particularly when they’re holding the reigns of a country’s health policy, as Mr. Abbott is. But I digress. The Minister was telling us about the role of the hotline.
“The whole point of this is to try to ensure that, whatever decision a woman makes, it really is her decision and not something that has been forced on her by social conditioning.”
Again, one could argue that this is an admirable goal. But consider that quote next to this one:
“Sure, abortion is a ‘choice’, like drinking and gambling,” [Abbott] said in a column in Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph last week, “but it is still a tragedy for all involved.”“Giving Pause to the Pregnant“, in The Australian
I’m going to be kind and assume that the Health Minister is referring not to moderate social drinking or gambling, but to alcoholism and gambling that falls on the addiction side of the scale. On the off chance that he means the former, then he’s making pro-choice arguments really easy, because there are few who would consider a drink at lunch or dinner and a bet on the Melbourne Cup “a tragedy for all involved”. Then again, he’s significantly minimising the kind of weight the decision to (or not to) have an abortion should be given, in a way that many pro-choicers would question. However, the latter interpretation is also highly problematic. He’s comparing having an abortion to chronic addictions. All other issues aside, because I can’t find polite language to detail what’s problematic about that comparison, surely the nation’s Health Minister can tell the difference between the decision to undergo a surgical procedure and an addiction? If not, why, precisely, is he our Health Minister?
Now, lest we think the Minister is being judgmental, he reassures us:
“I am not going to be judgmental about people who decide to have an abortion. In the end, it’s a matter for the individual facing those circumstances to decide.”
Now, given the quote earlier about the point being to ‘ensure a woman’s decision is really her own’, combined with the fact that both the Minister and Prime Minister John Howard have indicated they both hope and believe that this hotline will reduce the number of abortions performed in Australia, it’s rather obvious that the general idea from Abbott and Howard is that only women having abortions could possibly be so beholden to social conditioning, and all those women choosing not to terminate must be strong and decisive in the face of social pressure. No, that’s not judgmental at all. Neither is comparing women who have abortions to alcoholics and gambling addicts. Except for the part where, y’know, it is.
Just in case we weren’t sure where the hotline’s likely to stand, the contracts to provide counsellors have gone to Centacare (the health and welfare arm of the Catholic Church) and The Caroline Chisholm Society (another organisation philosophically opposed to abortion). Balanced? Non-directive? To be fair, the hotline isn’t up and running, so one can’t make evaluations of something that hasn’t yet occurred, but in all honesty, given the political goals and the attitudes that have informed the set-up, I’ll be remarkably and pleasantly surprised if the hotline is as unbiased and independent as the Government continues to assure us it will be.
*In 2005, a Bill was put forward to (in the main) require pregnancy counselling services to clearly indicate they they did not refer women to organisations that provide for any of the three options, if that was the case. The Senate Committee Report from last year examining the Bill can be found here. It’s an interesting read, if wading through government documents is your thing. I’m a dork, and this issue is part of my volunteering work at the moment, so it is.
* What’s interesting about the above report is the number of anti-choice organisations who are convinced that those who put the Bill forward have no intention of penalising organisations who don’t refer women to organisations that assist with continuing the pregnancy and raising the resultant child, or adoption. I wonder if part of the reason behind this is that they’re, well, projecting. Whilst this lawmaker isn’t Australian, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised at the existence of those with similar views here, even if they perhaps were not as blatant about it.