Reproductive freedom is unfinished business in Australia: Tanya Plibersek | Women's Agenda

Reproductive freedom is unfinished business in Australia: Tanya Plibersek

Around half of all women in Australia can legally access an abortion. For the other half, it’s a crime you can be jailed for.

And for those who can access an abortion legally, there are numerous restrictions that make it difficult, or even impossible. Cost is also a significant issue, often affecting those in rural and remote areas more so than women in cities.

These were some of the points Labor MP and Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek make last night during the Emily’s List Oration. She told the packed audience there is more work to on reproductive freedom in Australia and that “for Labor to be pro-women, we must be pro-choice.”


Plibersek said it’s clear the current approach to reproductive rights in Australia is not good enough.

“We’d like to hope we can control our bodies, but too many of us have had unexpected pregnancies, or struggled to become pregnant when we desperately wanted a child, to imagine that we really control our bodies. We do the best we can to influence our fertility, but life and relationships and accidents – both tragic and happy – all play a role.

“When it comes to something as important as carrying and raising a child we deserve as much say as possible, as much choice as possible. Every child born should be loved and wanted. I actually think that’s a pretty uncontroversial thing to say.”

Plibersek said it’s not just a matter of abortions still being illegal in some parts of Australia. “Reproductive health care can be prohibitively expensive – if you can even find a service that will help you. And yet one in three pregnancies is unplanned and one in five is terminated,” she said.

“If the intention behind all these barriers and restrictions is to stop women having abortions, it’s not working.”

She shared stories of “unnecessary trauma” of women having to travel hundreds of kilometres to try and get an early-term abortion, only to be told the procedure was not available, or to realise they couldn’t afford the hundreds of dollars it would cost.

“I wanted to make sure a woman facing the difficult decision to terminate her pregnancy had more options available to her,” she said. “Putting RU486 on the PBS undoubtedly made it easier for some women to end an unwanted pregnancy.”

But she said the current reality is that for many women who have decided they want an abortion, it’s still unaffordable and unattainable.

“The reality of the situation is that if you’re a middle class woman from a relatively privileged background living in a capital city, maybe you’ll agonise over the decision, there will be barriers and stigma around you getting an abortion, but you’ll probably be able to get one if you need to.

“If you live in a rural or remote area, if you’re experiencing poverty, if you don’t speak much English, if you’re young… it’s going to be a whole lot harder, if it’s possible at all.

“It is a serious restriction on women’s reproductive freedom and it’s a terrible start for children brought into the world in these circumstances.

Plibersek said abortion is one of the most common medical procedures an Australian woman will experience in her lifetime, with one in three pregnancies being unintended and 70% of terminations the result of failed contraceptives.

She also expressed concerns about the rate of pregnancy discrimination for mothers – with half reporting being discrimination against while they were pregnant, on maternity leave of following their return to work – as well as the role of reproductive freedom in helping to eliminate violence against women.

She said “reproductive coercion” – when a partner attempts to control or sabotage a woman’s birth control, make threats or are violent if a woman attempts to use a condom, or even removes a condom without consent – is a problem that must also be addressed.

Plibersek noted the need for a comprehensive approach to improving the use of effective contraceptive, better access to healthcare for vulnerable women, and the need to improve sex education for both genders, particularly around the meaning of consent. “We need to improve reproductive freedom through decent sex education to ensure young people have safe, fun, healthy, respectful relationships when they are ready.

“It’s girls who are more likely to be pressured to have sex when they don’t want to, to be publically shamed for sending selfies, to be ostracised for being too frigid or too promiscuous. It is girls who will end up pregnant, who are less likely to receive pleasure, who are more likely to be victims of violence.

“When our sex education system fails, girls pay a higher price.”

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