Lately, what the US does, Australia does. The federal government seems set on apeing George W. Bush’s administration, whatever Australians want, think, need or say. Now, consistent with US policy and practice, it’s gone so far as to put women’s health at risk, and breach Australia’s discrimination laws.
In July 2006, a US minority congressional report said federally funded “pregnancy resources centers” were “incorrectly telling [American] women that abortion results in an increased risk of breast cancer, infertility and deep psychological trauma”. Sound familiar?
In August 2006, Reproductive Choice Australia issued a press release headed “Over 15,000 Australians Plead: ‘Stop Deceiving Women’”, reporting that Senators Natasha Stott Despoja (Dem), Judith Adams (Lib.), Claire Moore (Lab.) and Kerry Nettle (Greens) had joined together in support of Despoja’s Transparent Advertising and Notification of Pregnancy Counselling Services Bill 2005.
A Senate inquiry heard that women had been told by pregnancy services receiving federal government funding that “terminating a pregnancy was ‘a sin’ and … was ‘killing the baby’”. Callers and clients were denied the possibility of pregnancy termination, receiving misleading information about its “risks”, “including an alleged link between breast cancer and abortion”. The services also tell women that abortion causes post traumatic stress or at least inconsolable psychological pain.
The purported link between pregnancy termination and breast cancer has been disproved by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), the Breast Cancer Council of Australia, and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (RANZCOG).
As for trauma, many women speak of the relief experienced upon termination, consistent with their decision that now is not the right time for them to bear a child.
Some women may suffer psychological distress, but the reasons are not as stark as the pregnancy counselling services seek to suggest. Rather, social pressure, religious force, political posturing and pestering along with family renunciation may cause stress and upset. Mostly, distress may arise for women wanting a child, but whose health or fetal indications stand in the way. Abortion is not the problem. Being unable to have a healthy child is.
False and misleading information will hardly assist these women, nor protect them from mental harm.
In support of the Bill, Despoja affirmed the “urgent need for legislation to outlaw "misleading and deceptive advertising’ by pregnancy counselling services, to ensure anti-abortion services are upfront about their stand, and women are not misled”.
Around the same time - mid-2006 - the federal government said it would designate a Medicare number solely for pregnancy counselling accessed by women unsure of whether or not to continue their pregnancy. In the government’s words, the Medicare number was for counselling (PDF 125KB) for “women who have, or have had, an unintended pregnancy, or who are unsure about whether to continue with a pregnancy”.
In September, the government said the number would apply to all pregnancy counselling. Nonetheless, that a policy so invasive of Australian women’s privacy could be suggested indicates a lack of concern for women’s health and privileging of fundamentalist religious views scapegoating abortion and women who contemplate it. It prioritises these over the non-judgmental provision of health care and services.
Both policies - funding organisations providing misleading information and failing to give women all pregnancy options, including termination; and having a special pregnancy counselling Medicare number - run directly counter to federal and state anti-discrimination laws and breach women’s human rights.
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She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.