The man who wants to change our abortion law

Senator John Madigan.

Senator John Madigan.

Every once in a while they pop up, these old white men who feel they have a God-given right to meddle with women's bodies.

They are not quite as rampant in Australia as they are in America but their power is no less mighty.

Under John Howard's Coalition government that man was Brian Harradine, the wily Tasmanian with firm anti-abortion views.

Back in 1996 when John Howard was desperate to partly privatise Telstra, Harradine was the man whose voted he needed.


Part of the deal included a ban on the abortion drug mifepristone, or RU486, as well as a ban on any money from the foreign aid budget being spent on family planning and abortion in developing countries.

Both the bodies of Australian women and those in countries with much worse statistics on maternal health was happily traded away by the Coalition in exchange for the money it would gain by selling off Telstra.

It was a grubby deal that still serves as a reminder that women's reproductive rights are never secure.

Both those provisions were eventually dropped.

The ministerial ban on RU486 was overturned by a conscience vote of both houses of Parliament in 2006.

The ban on foreign aid spending went under prime minister Kevin Rudd in 2009.

Since then various people from Family First Senator Steve Fielding to National Party stalwart Ron Boswell have talked about the need for more action to wind back abortion rights.

There is a ginger group within the Labor Party called Labor for Life, which connects MPs with pro-life views on a range of issues including abortion.

Now it's the turn of John Madigan, the Democratic Labor Party senator from Victoria who got into the Senate in 2010 and could very well hold the balance of power after the next election.

This makes him a potentially very powerful person.

Madigan has acknowledged Harradine as a personal hero and a ''model senator'', but it remains to be seen whether he uses the Harradine handbook to advance his anti-abortion agenda.

If a 1996-type situation emerges next year or the one after and a government of either hue is desperate to get a piece of legislation through the Senate don't be too sure that they would not make such a deal again.

On Wednesday, Senator Madigan will introduce a motion in the Senate aimed at stopping the public funding of abortions that are used purely to select boys or girls.

He told my colleague Lenore Taylor that he had ''seen data that abortion on the basis of gender selection is happening overseas and that means it is likely to be happening here''.

Madigan also conceded it was ''difficult to get Australian data'' on the issue.

This is not about abortion on the basis of gender selection.

This is about trying to force the issue of access to abortion into the political equation.

Senator Madigan would be aware, as other pro-life MPs are, that the issue of the legality of abortion is not one for the federal government.

It's why we have such a shambolic approach to abortion law in Australia with vastly different laws depending on the state.

Where the Commonwealth does have a role is Medicare funding.

And that's where Madigan sees his chance.

His motion seeks to rule out public funding for abortions on the basis of gender selection.
Since he concedes it is ''difficult to get Australian data'' on the issue one presumes he has very little data to demonstrate the extent of the supposed issue, if there is any at all.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say he has none.

I make this call because when Opposition Leader Tony Abbott talked of 100,000 abortions a year back in 2004 he was forced to acknowledge there were no exact figures after the Australian Medical Association said the actual figure could be much lower.

This is because the Medicare line item that covers terminations also covers curettage (the procedure undergone by women who have had miscarriages) and medically advised abortions, such as in the case of ovarian cancer patients.

Today you won't hear Mr Abbott go anywhere near the topic of abortion other than to say the Coalition has no plans to change existing arrangements and that he believes abortion should be ''safe, legal and rare'', a statement gratefully repeated by many a politician ever since Bill Clinton popularised it in the early 1990s.

I'd be surprised if either of the major parties backed Senator Madigan's motion so it can be debated.

Labor can hardly support it without throwing away all their attempts to cast Tony Abbott as anti-women.

The Coalition can't support it because it remains very sensitive to this criticism.

But if Madigan is following the Harradine playbook then this is all about letting both sides know that should they need his vote after September 14 this is an issue he wants action on.

5 comments so far

  • First off, I agree entirely with the line that abortion should be safe, legal and rare.

    Secondly, if his proposition is that abortion on the basis of gender selection should be outlawed, I fail to see why that should be a problem for anyone?

    Date and time
    February 27, 2013, 2:13PM
    • There are 2 issues that belie your oblivious pliant acceptance:
      1 - the practice of gender-selection is culturally not present in Aus, but in India, China et al. Claiming its happening here is a furphy/straw man.
      2 - this is "salami tactics", that is - an attempt to make small slices against abortion rights which will collectively significantly roll back reproductive choices as a whole.
      Women's reproductive rights are yet another example that freedoms granted by legislative fiat and common-law precedent are just not safe - we need a proper bill of rights that explicitly grants these rights and puts them above any political attempts to engage in religio-conservative social engineering.
      This is all part of the wider culture wars - the conservatives have been trying to undo all the social advancement gained post sexual revolution.
      They succeeded in the economic arena, destroying social democracy with economic rationalism - they think they can win again on this issue.
      Show them they're wrong.

      Date and time
      February 27, 2013, 11:53PM
  • Thankfully this bill is likely to get limited support for the reasons mentioned in the article.

    The anti-abortion campaigners really are reaching pretty hard in this case for the thin end of the wedge. I'd be extremely surprised if the number of Australian abortions *purely* on the basis of gender was more than a handful and there's absolutely no need to introduce this legislation.

    On a broader (i.e. worldwide) scale, the way to reduce sex-selective abortions is to raise the status of women equal to that of men so that girl children are as wanted as boys One great way to do that is not to treat women as little more than glorified incubators of the next generation.

    Date and time
    February 27, 2013, 3:11PM
    • Like democracy being the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time, so too legal, safe, medically supervised abortion is the worst - apart from the alternatives (illegal, unsafe abortions). No one sets out to put themselves in a position of needing one, but if one is needed, better that it is done right. And human beings being as they are, they will always be needed (unless men would like to take a bit more responsibility? No, didn't think so.)

      Your body, your choice
      Date and time
      February 27, 2013, 3:58PM
      • Using women's bodies for political deals is disgusting. No matter what side of politics, a willingness to negotiate away women, maternal and community health, particularly in developing nations is totally unethical & shows a huge disregard for aid organisations or science. Let's put the pressure on politicians like this and continue to ask them how they can justify their policies.

        Date and time
        February 27, 2013, 5:17PM

        Make a comment

        You are logged in as [Logout]

        All information entered below may be published.

        Error: Please enter your screen name.

        Error: Your Screen Name must be less than 255 characters.

        Error: Your Location must be less than 255 characters.

        Error: Please enter your comment.

        Error: Your Message must be less than 300 words.

        Post to

        You need to have read and accepted the Conditions of Use.

        Thank you

        Your comment has been submitted for approval.

        Comments are moderated and are generally published if they are on-topic and not abusive.