Four things we learned from the Senate's gender abortion debate


Clementine Ford

Senator John Madigan at Parliament House in Canberra.

Senator John Madigan at Parliament House in Canberra.

In the final weeks of her Prime Ministership, Julia Gillard earned yet more derision and ire from the press when she warned that a government made up of ‘men in blue ties’ would turn abortion into a political plaything. Addressing a group of supporters primarily made up of women, Gillard was painted once again as a manipulative shrew who was ‘playing the gender card’ to try and dishonestly misrepresent the good men of Australian politics.

Get over the misogyny talk, Gillard! they yelled. We love women! Almost all of us own several of them!

And yet here we are, only a year later, watching as the Australian Senate debate a Bill which seeks to impose limitations on access to abortion.

Officially, the private member’s bill - introduced by Senator John Madigan - appears to target Medicare funding for abortions sought specifically for sex-selective reasons. Or to put it another way, Senator Madigan wants to stop evil women from stealing taxpayer money so they can murder their girl children.


Anyway, in this new political landscape where abortion is totally not going to become the plaything of men in blue ties, let’s take a look at four of the most completely unsurprising things that we learned from yesterday’s Senate discussion on dirty, pregnant whores.

1. Sex-selective abortion is not actually happening in Australia.

To recap, this is a bill which specifically targets sex-selective abortion. It’s a bill which is taking up valuable Senate time in discussions and further readings, and one would assume that this would mean there is some merit to its content.

But across the board, Senators speaking yesterday (even those who wholeheartedly support Madigan’s assault on women) acknowledged what everyone knew already - that sex-selective abortion isn’t really happening in Australia. Instead, this is being couched as a preventative measure - you know, just in case it starts becoming a problem.

The offence in this is twofold. Firstly, there’s the not so subtle racism involved in suggesting that we don’t really need to worry about Nice, White Australians doing this but those shady brown people who keep sneaking their weird food and morals past border patrol. And secondly, there’s the absolute insult of attempting to place restrictions on hard won abortion rights and packaging it as a theoretical, preventative measure.

Sex-selective abortion is not happening in Australia. Its existence isn’t supported by evidence, and it’s not even supported by the people who want to exploit it in order to attack women’s reproductive freedoms. Stop trying to make fetch happen, Madigan.


2. It is okay to ‘play the gender card’ if you’re a conservative white male politician who wants to control women’s bodies.

In preparation for this piece, I watched the televised Senate Proceedings. And what that really means is that I had to watch Senator Corey ‘Gay People Do It With Dogs’ Bernardi hypocritically exploit the topic of gender inequality for almost 15 minutes with absolutely no acknowledgement of how his views and actions ritually perpetuate it. Sex-selective abortion is, according to the Senator, a matter of grave concern because girls should be treated with respect and dignity.

Senator Bernardi is of course the same man who claimed that non-traditional families would lead to violence in boys and ‘promiscuity’ in girls, so his frame of reference for respect is somewhat questionable. Yet he repeatedly spoke of ‘gender equality’ and rights for girls, reading excerpts from United Nations papers and pulling his bleeding heart directly from his chest, thrusting it to the sky as he implored us to remember that this was not about abortion but about equality.

When women speak the truth about our own oppression, we’re accused of ‘playing the gender card’. But when men do it, that’s politics. Hey Barnardi. Let’s talk about gender equality and abortion when cis-men start getting pregnant. Until then, STFU.


3. This bill isn’t about banning sex-selective abortions. This bill is about banning abortion full stop.

John Madigan and his band of merry middle aged men aren’t interested in protecting female fetuses from gendered oppression. If they truly cared about gender inequality, they’d be defending the rights of women to control their own fertility, not just here but abroad. They’d be urging more foreign aid for programs which provide women with contraceptive options, including the option to access safe terminations. They’d listen to health experts who understand that access to safe fertility control in all its forms is one of the most integral requirements for women’s liberation and economic security.

But they’re not. Because actually, they don’t care about real life actual women, only the unborn cargo they’re too often forced to carry against their wishes.

This bill represents a new approach to the anti-choice agenda in Australia. Specifically, a very right-wing, American kind of approach to targeting abortion legislation. Madigan knows that any overt attempts to criminalise abortion once again will fail, so he’s decided to try the backdoor. This is a test case. And if it passes, it sets a precedent that WILL be exploited to try and further tighten legislation. Even ALP Senator Jim Bullock referred to this bill as a ‘step in the right direction’.

So why should we focus all our energy on opposing this? Because this is what it boils down to.


4. When you limit women’s reproductive health choices, women die.

Greens Senator Richard Di Nitale put it best yesterday when he said, “When you prevent women from having a termination, you don’t reduce the number of terminations - you just put women at risk.”

Unsafe abortion is one of the top five killers of pregnant women worldwide. Seven women die every hour from the consequences of unsafe abortion. And these deaths would be 99% preventable if global access to safe terminations was available.

When conservative, frequently male led agendas deny women the right to control their own fertility and reproduction, women die.

When men force women to seek unsafe methods to terminate pregnancies, women die.

When men legislate in ways that harm women and go against all practical evidence available in regards to their health and well-being, women die.

Women. Die.

But by all means Senator Madigan - keep pretending this is about saving girl-children while ignoring the reality of what it is you’re trying to do. Because we would hate for Australia to stand by while gender inequality was happening.