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Health Legislation Amendment (Conscientious Objection) Bill 2022

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Samantha Ratnam
Leader of the Victorian Greens
17 August 2022

I rise to speak on the Health Legislation Amendment (Conscientious Objection) Bill 2022. As Ms Patten outlined in her second-reading speech, this is a bill inspired by the overturning of Roe v. Wade, which since 1973 had conferred a constitutional right to abortion in the United States. I completely agree with her that ripples of sadness and fear from that decision have been felt by women and gender-diverse people not just in the United States but across the world. For some to assert in the course of this debate that it is just ‘some international hoo-ha’ completely misses the threat that women across the world have been feeling since that decision. We know that international events have domestic consequences. We know that there are those movements that still exist, scarily, to reverse hard-fought-for rights that women have fought for throughout history. And we know those movements get emboldened, get energised and get more organised when there are international decisions like that, and they start to shift our domestic politics and they start to affect the decisions that are made in parliaments such as this one.

Ms Crozier, in her contribution, wanted to dismiss this as something that was irrelevant to us, but on that point about mobilising those domestic actors, it is happening in her own party. Look at the preselections happening in the lead-up to the state election. There are actors in current political movements in Victoria who are emboldened by what happened in the United States and who are actively planning to dismantle the rights that women have won over the years, which is why it is so important to keep having these debates.

I commend Ms Patten for bringing this debate to the house. I do not think we should be worried about perceivedly cracking open a debate. These debates in many ways unfortunately are always open because there are always threats to the rights that have been hard fought for and won over many, many years. Many of us are now forced to consider or reconsider the fragility of rights so intrinsic to us as power over our own bodies and so intrinsic to our national identity as the universal right to health care.

I will start my contribution by establishing why in the wake of Roe v. Wade we must also examine the issue of reproductive rights and access to reproductive health care in Victoria. While it is true that the legal and political landscape here is somewhat different to the US, there are also some very striking similarities, such as how in Victoria, as in the United States, reproductive legal rights originated from the courts, with the revolutionary Menhennitt ruling of 1969 establishing the common-law protection for legal abortion. In fact it was not until 2008 when abortion laws were passed in this place that these protections were truly safe from suffering a similar face to Roe v. Wade. Furthermore, it is only in this year, 2022, that we can now correctly claim that abortion is decriminalised in every jurisdiction across Australia—just this year.

But while this is a notable achievement, we also should be under no illusion that all decriminalisations are created equal or that at the stroke of a pen abortion becomes freely available for all those who need it—just like other essential health care—because it is not. By way of example, I may ask, as we hear in the news about vulnerable women forced to travel hundreds of miles across state lines to access abortion services in the US: how many of us here are aware that current laws in Western Australia are still so restrictive that every year Australian women are forced to do the same thing? Decriminalisation helps to overcome a significant legal barrier, but really it is only one of the many obstacles in our fight to access reproductive health care.

Victorian women—for over a century, regardless of the laws of the day—have always faced major barriers in terms of the financial costs and the limited availability of medical professionals in accessing abortion, and sadly this remains the case today. Currently out-of-pocket expenses for surgical abortion amount to hundreds of dollars, if a person is able to find and access a GP or gynaecologist willing to provide appropriate services. There are more obstacles for those who find themselves on the wrong side of one of the increasing number of divisions across our supposedly universal health care system—the divisions between public and private, between regional and rural, between social advantage and social isolation and the perpetual division between state and federal governments over who is responsible and who should fund services. All of these inequalities are especially pronounced in reproductive health care, where they often directly influence the choices of those who need it.

Ms Patten’s bill today seeks to remove yet another barrier to accessing these services—perhaps the most ludicrously artificial and unnecessary—the division between a public hospital and the artifice of a denominational public hospital. It highlights yet another fault line with the privatisation and outsourcing of essential services. It is happening in health care and in community care and in so many other sectors where services that should be universally accessible and secular are being shaped and denied by non-secular and religious policy. Public funds should be for providing universally accessible services.

We fully support this bill, but we also urge the government to do so much more. For example, let us use this opportunity to also do what the Labor-Greens government in the ACT has done. Our national leaders in the ACT have announced what they are doing, and they are providing funding so that from next year Canberra residents will have access to free medical and surgical abortions. Whether you live in the ACT or whether you live in Victoria, the amount of money you have should not determine the types of essential health care available to you.

We are also pleased to endorse the Victorian government’s announcement just last week of three new regional sexual and reproductive health hubs. These should provide access to long-acting, reversible contraception and, I hope, medical abortion. However, surgical abortions for unwanted pregnancies beyond nine weeks gestation are still difficult to obtain in rural and regional parts of Victoria. The Greens believe we have a lot more to do in this space, coordinating and resourcing primary care with specialist sexual and reproductive health information and expertise.

We also need to provide better information and access to long-acting, reversible contraception, such as IUDs and implants, as there are still far too many unwanted pregnancies, and we urgently need to do more to prevent, track and treat sexually transmitted infections such as syphilis that have in the last decade re-emerged at alarming epidemic levels across all groups in Victoria. In fact if it was not for COVID-19, the epidemiological re-emergence of STIs which can have devastating effects on both reproductive and general health would surely be making headlines as a public health disaster. It is a measure of the problem that cases of congenital syphilis, which essentially had been eradicated from the Victorian population since the turn of the century, have re-emerged in recent years, leading to adverse pregnancy outcomes and neonatal deaths.

But it is not just about improving services, the Victorian Greens also recognise the need to address other less obvious obstacles to accessing reproductive health care. So we support the broad introduction of reproductive health leave, where employees are entitled to additional days of leave specifically to help them if they need to address reproductive and sexual health issues like having an IUD inserted or having an abortion, because people should no longer have to put off accessing or make up excuses or pretend they are on a lunch break just to access essential health care.

It is a measure of the scope of the problems and the need for urgent action that I recognise there are many more important issues that I might have touched on in addressing this issue today. But what I hope is most apparent is the fact that there can be no genuine plan to fix our health system, as many are now promising, unless that plan also addresses the many issues in sexual and reproductive health care. So it is the job of all of us—whether in government, in opposition or on the crossbench, state or federal—to start prioritising solutions to these issues, just as Ms Patten has with this bill today. It is so important we continue to remain vigilant on these hard-fought-for rights and access to essential health care. The Victorian Greens commend Ms Patten and strongly support this bill.

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Samantha Ratnam
Leader of the Victorian Greens
17 August 2022
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