Abortion troubles in Australia

The Australian Medical Association brawls with the country's health ministry over antiabortion misinformation and privacy violations.


Page Rockwell
August 3, 2006 5:00PM (UTC)

Turns out the U.S. isn't the only country having a problem with antiabortion activists disguising their advocacy as "crisis counseling." The Australian Medical Association blew the whistle this week on a package of government practices designed to shame, er, counsel women out of terminating their pregnancies.

Back in March, Australia's Parliament ended the countrywide ban on the abortifacient RU-486 "by stripping Health Minister Tony Abbott of his veto powers over the drug," the Daily Telegraph reported Wednesday. (Side note: Despite the parliamentary vote, RU-486 remains hard to come by in Australia because no pharmaceutical companies currently import the drug. Some physicians have wondered whether Abbott is behind the de facto blockade, though he denies it; in the meantime, the cancer drug methotrexate is being used as a substitute abortifacient in some regions.) Abbott responded to the RU-486 decision with an alternative proposal to lower the country's abortion rate: a Medicare rebate for pregnancy-related counseling, plus a 24-hour hotline.

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So far, so good. But the counseling rebate requires that doctors' offices flag the files of women considering abortion with a unique code. "This item number would put on the record the fact that a woman has had an unplanned pregnancy or is uncertain about whether to continue with her pregnancy, regardless of her ultimate choice," physician and AMA president Mukesh Haikerwal said Wednesday.

"The information would be available to anyone who saw the Medicare account in the medical practice, in Medicare offices or family members," Haikerwal continued. "This affects patients' privacy -- particularly in small towns or close-knit communities and potentially may lead to discrimination against the patient." It's like a scarlet letter for the new millennium!

And then there's the fact that doctors who have previously performed or been associated with abortion services aren't allowed to use the special code. Haikerwal sounded off impressively on this, too: "Interventions such as counseling must not attempt to coerce women into making any particular reproductive choice," he said. "If the government wants to reduce Australia's abortion rate, it would do better to aim to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies by expanding education and access to contraceptives." (Does the White House get Australian TV, we wonder?)

The AMA wants the special Medicare code to apply to all pregnancy-related counseling -- including treatment for depression, miscarriage and genetic abnormalities -- instead of just abortion. But Abbott remains pleased with his plan as it currently stands. "If these initiatives help women to make genuine personal choices rather than socially-conditioned ones, if they help women in an almost impossibly difficult situation to feel less alone, they will ultimately be one of the Howard government's more significant achievements," he said. 'Cause nothing makes a woman feel less alone than having her privacy violated and her personal decisions questioned, right? Right?


Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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