Climate change, soaring petrol and food prices, one in seven Australian children living in poverty and catastrophic levels of violence in some indigenous communities. These are just some current issues of national importance that most Australians would see as legitimate topics for debate.

Sadly, the womb watchers think otherwise.

It is no secret that former Prime Minister Howard gave unprecedented license to the Christian fundamentalists in his party to use Australian women’s fertility decisions as a means of wedging and distracting the community. Single women with the temerity to want a child, and divorced mothers dependent on the dole to raise one were the Government’s favourite whipping girls.

When Howard fell, taking with him his incendiary choice of Health Minister Tony Abbott – a.k.a. the `mad monk’ – many sighed with relief. Surely the Ministerial appointments of Julia Gillard and Nicola Roxon, and the elevation of former AMA President Brendan Nelson to Opposition leader signalled the demise of womb-watching as a national sport, and the re-assertion of the commonsense belief that women and their partners have the right to decide if and when they bear children.

But the view that the new Federal landscape represents a new dawn in fertility politics is about to be tested. On 18 June, Tasmanian Liberal Senator Guy Barnett gave notice of plans to table a motion in parliament that would make women more than 14 weeks pregnant undergoing labour for an “intrauterine fetal death, gross fetal abnormality or life threatening maternal disease” pay for the procedure themselves. Medicare funding, just for these women undertaking just this procedure, would no longer be available.

So what if a woman has a dead fetus festering in her womb, or one affected by what Barnett himself describes as a “common disabilities such as Down syndrome and spina bifida.” Who cares if her condition puts her life at risk? Where do such women get off thinking they not only have a right to such medical care, but to have Medicare fund it? If Guy Barnett, a self-described man of “conscience,” has his way, such feral feminists will be coming down off that high horse, and quick.

The issue will come to a vote in September. Whether, and how strenuously his Liberal and Labor colleagues will say much about the future of womb-watching in this country.

Will Brendan Nelson maintain his long-held view that exiting Medicare arrangements must stay in place to avoid backyard abortion, or will he squib – as he did earlier this month when it came to lifting the ban on foreign aid paying for abortion – in a fruitless attempt to please the party’s right wing? Will Deputy PM Gillard and Health Minister Nicola Roxon, two women whose hearts are clearly in the right place on this issue stand up and be counted – both behind the scenes and in front of the cameras – or will their ambition get in the way?

I’ve heard that when Barnett declared his intentions in the party room, most of his colleagues rolled their eyes. Not just because most Liberals-like most members of the ALP and 81% of Australians-support the right of individuals to decide, but because they are sick to death of discussing abortion.

Guy Barnett, if you don’t want to have an abortion, it’s OK. You don’t have to have one. Now, can you get out of the conversational way so the rest of the nation can discuss the issues that really matter.

Publication history

Womb Watching While Rome Burns  Sunday Sun-Herald (Sydney)
2008-06-29