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Pro-choice and no-choice

By Kathy Woolf - posted Wednesday, 20 July 2005

Democrats Senator Natasha Stott Despoja recently introduced a private members' bill to force pregnancy counselling agencies to refer women to abortion clinics when requested, or lose their listing in the White Pages.

Stott Despoja’s bill is an attack on the counselling groups that offer support to women throughout their pregnancy, but don’t refer for abortion. Will her bill call on pro-abortion counselling agencies to declare their bias? What about the family planning agency which referred 75 per cent of its clients for abortion? Or the Canberra family planning and pregnancy counselling agency, which until last year, owned the local abortion clinic?

Stott Despoja’s bill is an attempt to shore up the business of abortion clinics and the agencies that refer women to them. Her bill coincides with the recent launch of a new lobby group, Reproductive Choice Australia (RCA), which is being formed to oppose any change on the abortion front. You know the type of thing: don’t acknowledge any problem with abortion; don’t do anything to improve the lives of women who don’t want this choice; and above all don’t threaten the business of abortion clinics.


Instead of trying to block reforms which would make women’s lives better and denigrating agencies that do not refer women for abortion, Senator Stott Despoja should be trying to increase support for those services which, unlike abortion referral agencies, offer pregnant women material and emotional support. She is out of step with public opinion.

The latest insight into the opinions of the Australian people was given in research (pdf file 1.76MB) released in May by the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute. For example, almost 90 per cent of Australians think it would be a good thing to find ways to reduce the number of abortions. Let’s hope Senator Stott Despoja and the RCA won’t be successful trying to scuttle this common sense objective.

The research also found that Australians think very positively about women giving birth rather than aborting their babies. For that reason the public thinks there should be more information and practical alternatives offered to pregnant women. Providing information and adequate support was seen as a way of helping women to choose to have their baby.

While the majority of those surveyed strongly supported offering women alternatives to abortion, the research uncovered a serious lack of information about pregnancy and the services available. Many participants in the survey were unable to name any of the numerous organisations that will offer women help.

What information did Australians think women should be offered? Almost 100 per cent thought women should be informed of the health risks of an abortion. Almost 80 per cent thought the information should include alternatives to abortion. About 90 per cent thought some source other than an abortion clinic should provide the information. Underlining the widespread distrust of abortion providers, only 2 per cent of respondents thought these clinics were the best place for women to get information on abortion.

Although there are many groups providing practical support for women who wish to continue their pregnancy, the Federal Government provides only $250,000 per year for these services. Yet $13 million per year goes to family planning organisations which refer women to abortion clinics and don’t provide practical support for women confronted with difficulties in pregnancy. Adequate funding for organisations giving information about alternatives to abortion is a positive way forward to help women to avoid unwanted abortions.


The research stresses that making choice real for women will involve scrutiny of wider issues such as taxation and income policy, family assistance, family friendly work arrangements and improved access to childcare.

These findings are in agreement with a 2004 report of the Australian Institute of Family Studies. That report showed “Australians in their primary childbearing years want to have children”, yet are worried about their financial capacity to support a family. High housing costs and lack of job security, particularly for men who don’t have post school qualifications, were major concerns for both men and women.

Women, usually the primary caregivers, are concerned also about the competing work-family pressures faced by their partners. Both men and women see that they need to trade off time invested in their career for the extra stresses and demands of having a family. Finding affordable childcare was a major concern for mothers, especially where two incomes are often seen as necessary to make ends meet.

Economic and employment security need strengthening, so that choices about parenting are increased for both women and men. The Federal Government’s Stronger Families and Communities Strategy supports community-based early intervention programs for such things as parenting and relationship skills, however, the impact of the program is not yet significant.

The research of the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute challenges the persistent misrepresentations by pro-abortion groups that the Australian community is complacent about Australia’s high abortion rate and reluctant to look for more positive alternatives.

These views challenge us to think beyond the polarised public debate. Senator Stott Despoja and Reproductive Choice Australia should not try to duck that challenge.

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Article edited by Patrick O'Neill.
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About the Author

Kath Woolf is spokesperson for the Australian Federation of Right to Life Associations

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