Victorian Senator John Madigan introduced a Bill into the Senate last to ensure that Medicare funding is not available for ‘terminations carried out on the basis of gender’. Let’s ignore the fact that he fundamentally misunderstands the meaning of the word ‘gender’, for a moment, and look at the intent of the Bill itself.
It looks pretty innocuous, doesn’t it? It’s not banning anything, even, despite the fact that it’s being picked up as a ‘ban on sex selective abortions’. It’s just asking that those abortions are not funded by Medicare. Well, and who could argue with that? Performing terminations based on the sex of the foetus is hardly the sort of behaviour one expects from proper members of Team Australia, after all.
This bill, though, is not about those terminations.
Do those terminations even occur in Australia? There’s scant evidence that they do. Madigan himself has only come up with the less-than-compelling position that, since sex-selective abortions probably happen overseas, and in certain immigrant populations in the US (as evidenced by the prevalence of male babies born to those populations), it is ‘likely to be occurring in Australia’. None of the submissions to the 2013 Federal inquiry into the issue could come up with any proof that it was either, focusing instead on other countries.
Cory Bernardi, in the Senate hearings, even acknowledged this, saying that there was “very little, maybe no evidence” of termination for sex selection purposes in Australia. But that doesn’t matter, says Bernardi – a man who, lest we forget, also talks about abortion as being a ‘death industry’ – even one procedure, one, which attracts Medicare funding for the purpose of terminating a foetus on the basis of sex, is one too many.
Now, at first blush, this might all seem a little bit over the top. With an Ebola crisis killing hundreds of thousands of people in West Africa, 600 Australian troops committed to intervention in the Middle East, and one woman killed in Australia every week as a result of a violent partner or ex, one might be forgiven for thinking that it is a huge, blatant waste of Senate time to be debating whether or not a single hypothetical termination attracts Medicare funding.
One would be wrong.
The point is not to prevent a single hypothetical termination. The point is to introduce the idea that it is reasonable, and acceptable, for the government to enquire as to the motive of a woman seeking to make a decision about her own body. At the moment, if a termination is done, it is assumed that the decision was made by the woman whose body it is for the appropriate reasons; beyond that, we do not enquire. But this Bill introduces a very dangerous precedent: suddenly, there are terminations done for the right reasons, and terminations done for the wrong ones.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see how easily that concept can be expanded.
As it stands, the Bill is also logistlcally unworkable, on all readings except one. And it’s that one that’s the real danger.
Under this Bill, a Medicare rebate is not payable if the termination is done ‘solely for the reason of the gender [sic] of the foetus’.
There are, roughly, 70,000 pregnancy terminations in Australia every year. If that sounds like a lot, it isn’t; bear in mind that there is no differential in the statistics between terminations done for medical reasons, ‘elective terminations’, and spontaneous termination of pregnancy (ie., miscarriage) that requires medical assistance. There is no differentiation precisely because we, as a country, do not consider it appropriate to categorise pregnancy terminations by moral weight.
Those procedures are done by doctors and partially funded by Medicare.
So, what happens here? Those 70,000 terminations are performed, the claims are duly submitted to Medicare Australia, and…? Does some poor work experience kid have to ring up each of the doctors and ask what the recorded motive for the termination was? The answer will be this: there is no recorded motive, and if there was, there is such a thing as client confidentiality you acned squirt, get a sub poena and then we’ll talk. Or, perhaps, does one legislate further and put the onus on the doctor to warn her patient: based on the motives you’ve disclosed for seeking this procedure, I am legally bound to inform Medicare that they should withhold payment? Of course not: Doctor/patient confidentiality is a well documented and extremely important guarantee in our society. It can be broken under very well defined, narrow parameters, where the reason for breaking it is extremely compelling, and where that is done, the onus rests on the medical practitioner to prove that it was deserved. Trust me when I say: that’s a legal precedent that you really, really don’t want to fuck with.
So, obviously, there’s only one possible way that this Bill could ever be implemented, and that is to put the onus on the patient to prove that her termination was not solely for the purpose of selecting the sex (SEX. SEX, DO YOU HEAR ME?) of her child. So you’re requiring women to disclose the other motives (remember, the Bill only operates where sex is the sole motive) to seek a termination. Perhaps there could be tick boxes: ‘too young’, ‘too poor’, ‘health condition that makes a pregnancy untenable’, ‘I already have three children and my family is large enough’.
But no matter what you do, or how it’s implemented, you’ve opened a door to the idea that women’s reproductive choices can be scrutinised by government officials to determine their merit.
So this Bill. Don’t be tempted to write it off as irrelevant, just because it is biologically impossible to determine gender in the womb and therefore it is completely fucking nonsensical and who the hell drafted this shit anyway. Or because there is no evidence that sex selective abortions happen.
Don’t write it off. This Bill is not about those terminations. It’s about all of them.