Questions arise over Abbott's plans for abortion

"Women would once again [be] banished from the centre of Australia's political life'' under a government led by Tony ...
"Women would once again [be] banished from the centre of Australia's political life'' under a government led by Tony Abbott, Ms Gillard said. Photo: Rob Homer Photo: Rob Homer

Julia Gillard says that if the Coalition wins government, abortion will return to being "a political plaything of men who think they know better". But what could an Abbott-led Coalition actually do to alter the abortion status quo? And what about the things it has ruled out doing?

There is much the Coalition government - indeed, any federal government - could do to change the reproductive rights landscape. Many of these powers have been demonstrated by attempts to do so in recent years.

The most obvious concern is that the discussion will be framed in a way that stigmatises the procedure, and shames the women who have it. But the prime minister is a key determinant of what is and isn't news, and if Tony Abbott wants to talk about abortion, we'll all be talking about abortion.

Illustration: Andrew Dyson.
Illustration: Andrew Dyson. 

The federal government controls the cost of abortion services, which in turn determines whether all women - or only well-heeled ones - have access to quality and timely abortion care. It does this through Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS).

The government of the day can seek legislative leave to eliminate funding for particular medical procedures. In 2005, Christopher Pyne - a likely minister in the next government - sought to amend the existing health legislation to allow then health minister Abbott to refuse Medicare benefits for items "the government does not wish to fund through Medicare". He failed, but a more conservative Parliament could support such moves.

The federal government can also give or refuse leave for legislative changes sought by independents or minor parties to be debated and voted on. Anti-choice senator Brian Harradine's hold on the balance of power in the Senate during the Howard government meant his wish to deny Australian women access to RU486 became reality. This could happen again, with current predictions that DLP senator John Madigan could hold the balance of power in the next Senate. An Abbott government could face Madigan's pressure to allow his current bill, which seeks to restrict Medicare funding for abortion, to be debated and voted on in the next Parliament. Certainly Madigan has made clear his intention to use his power to put anti-choice legislation before the Federal Parliament.

The federal government can and does seek to influence its advisory bodies, and can accept or reject advice it receives. Health Minister Tanya Plibersek is still considering a recommendation to subsidise RU486 through the PBS. Ministers can also reverse decisions made under their own, or a previous minister's, watch. In 2004, then health minister Abbott told the media he intended to look into "what the government can do" to reverse the decision that meant the morning-after pill could be sold over the counter. He said he wanted to see the combination pack of oral contraceptive pills made available only by prescription.

The government can seek to influence or delay the approval process of the Therapeutic Goods Administration, another agency involved in women's reproductive health. It's notable that the approval process RU486 underwent was exceedingly slow and cautious.

So the federal government does have considerable power to shape the way the nation talks about abortion, the way it regulates and funds the procedure, and the women who have them.

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But what, if any, of these powers would an Abbott government deploy? Hasn't Abbott said he has no plans or intentions to change abortion laws, and that he believes abortion should be "safe, legal and rare"?

On the ''safe, legal and rare'' front, Abbott's full quotes include: ''I think there's much to be said for ensuring that abortion is 'safe, legal and rare'. The trouble, as most Australians seem to agree, is that up to 100,000 abortions a year is already far too many.'' And in another interview, he said that abortion ''should be safe, legal and rare. And I underline 'rare'.''

The assurances he gives are not specific enough, they don't rule out everything he could do and has done in the past, and key caveats are rarely broadcast or seen as significant.

What if you know that as recently as 2007, Abbott boasted that one of his key accomplishments as one of the "eight Catholics … in the … [Howard] cabinet" was trying "to reduce abortion numbers through pregnancy support counselling"? Wouldn't you suspect that this might be a change in the status quo Abbott would pursue again, particularly given his repetitive claim that women are having too many abortions, and because intervening in this way would not violate his promise not to change abortion laws?

All as clear as mud, which makes it sensible for Gillard to raise the issue, and for the media to pursue clear, expansive and unequivocal answers about what Abbott, if he is elected prime minister, would do, given what we know he could do, when it comes to abortion.

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