By Professor Joanna Howe
The federal Senate inquiry into reproductive healthcare has released its long-awaited report.
Although I’ve been involved in many Senate inquiries in the past decade during my time as an academic, I’ve never seen anything like this before.
This inquiry has actively excluded the voices of Australians with a different view on abortion to the Greens Senators who are leading the inquiry, that is Larissa Waters and Janet Rice.
Although Senate inquiries are often politically motivated, they are meant to operate in a fair and transparent manner.
The role of a Senate committee is, "to investigate and to draw attention to what they find. They throw ‘light in dark corners’ and give advice...They also provide an opportunity for organisations and individuals to make representations to Parliament and to have their views placed on the public record."
But here, Senators Larissa Waters and Janet Rice have excluded Australians because they don’t support the radical pro-abortion agenda of the Australian Greens and have denied them the opportunity to have their views placed on the public record.
The final report says that 352 submissions were made to the inquiry and published on the website, but this is not true.
There were far more submissions than this, but Senators Larissa Waters and Janet Rice have used their power to bury them.
Submissions closed on December 15. All Australians were invited to make a submission, either as an individual or as part of an organisation.
Some Australians wrote submissions directly to the inquiry. Others made their submission and put it in via a third-party website – like for ACL or Canberra Declaration.
To be clear: all of these submissions were original. There was no pro forma letter. These were individual submissions that were written by individual Australians.
When the inquiry began publishing the submissions on January 31, it became very clear that something suspicious was going on as the vast majority of the initial submissions which were uploaded had an ideological agenda in lock step with the Greens senators leading the inquiry. The submissions were either pro-surrogacy or pro-abortion.
After I wrote to the Senate committee to ask of the whereabouts of my submission, mine and that of eight other organisations critical of abortion and its harms to women and children (prolife organisations) were published on the website. However, I knew this fell woefully short of the thousands of prolife Australians who had submitted individually to this inquiry and that many organisations, including Women’s Forum Australia and Enid Lyons List had not had their submissions published.
The Senate inquiry then announced it would publish a sample of the submissions that had been made by individuals who had submitted their submissions via a third-party website.
“The committee has received a large volume of material associated with two coordinated campaigns, including from a third-party coordinated campaign and the Australian Christian Lobby, as well as three form letters from Fair Agenda, Surrogacy Australia, and Cherish Life.
Correspondence associated with the campaigns and form letters either note that they do not support abortion services, or that they do support abortion services.
In light of the similarities of the views expressed in the campaigns and the form letters, the committee has agreed to publish a sample of each of the campaigns and form letters along with the key topics raised by individuals and the number of emails received in respect of each campaign.”
This announcement creates a false equivalency between submissions received from prolife and prochoice campaigns. Now that the final report has been released, we can see that this greatly mischaracterises the nature of engagement that Australians have had with the inquiry on the issue of abortion.
The truth is this: the overwhelming majority of Australians who made submissions to this inquiry advocated for policies other than abortion to respond to the reproductive healthcare needs of women. Only a handful of the submissions were pro-choice or pro-surrogacy.
In fact, 1620 prolife Australians who made submissions via the websites of the Australian Christian Lobby, Canberra Declaration and Cherish Life have had their voices suppressed by this inquiry through the decision to only publish a small sample of the submissions. In contrast, only 150 submissions were made by prochoice and pro-surrogacy individuals via Fair Agenda and Surrogacy Australia websites.
Thus, the substantive effect of the decision to publish a sample of the submissions made through third party websites is that it grossly underrepresents and disproportionately affects the voices of prolife Australians.
This is highly concerning given that this decision was made by a Senate committee in the so-called “People’s House” which is led by the radically pro-abortion Australian Greens.
And that’s not all.
The report also makes clear that it excluded altogether a raft of other submissions purely because they were critical of abortion. They said:
“During the inquiry, the committee received a substantial amount of material that objected to the terminology used in the terms of reference and/or commented on the ethics of pregnancy terminations and whether they should, or should not, be allowed in Australia.”
So, they haven’t even told us how many additional submissions are in this category but what they have said is a “substantial amount”. This number could be in the thousands but the striking lack of transparency by the Committee means we will never know.
Since the report has been published, I have been inundated by Australian women who are outraged that their submissions which they made directly to the Committee have been unpublished. Some women shared their experience of abortion with the Committee only to have this excluded from the website.
The basis for the Committee’s exclusion of this second group of prolife submissions is that they are critical of abortion and abortion is legal in Australia. As such, the Committee deemed them as being beyond the terms of reference. The Committee states in its final report:
“The committee considers that the terms of reference of the inquiry do not engage with these questions of morality or whether pregnancy terminations should be legal or otherwise.”
This reason, however, is highly disingenuous given that a number of submissions critical of abortion (including my own) were published by the Committee. If being critical of abortion is outside the terms of reference, then why were some submissions published and others excluded?
In my view, the real issue here isn’t that these buried submissions went beyond the terms of reference because the terms of reference were, in fact, very broad. They specifically relate to reproductive healthcare, including pregnancy care and terminations.
The issue is that there were far more submissions written that were critical of abortion than supported the committee’s ideological position and they just didn’t want to have this on the record.
It is highly disturbing when a powerful group silences the voices of others just because those in power disagree with those voices. The lack of due process, transparency and accountability in this inquiry taints the final report and should not form the basis for government policy.
Dr Joanna Howe is a Professor of Law and speaks out on the issue of abortion on social media accounts (@drjoannahowe) on Instagram, Tiktok, Facebook and Youtube to inform and inspire a new prolife generation in Australia.
Women’s Forum Australia is an independent think tank that undertakes research, education and public policy advocacy on issues affecting women and girls, with a particular focus on addressing behaviours and practices that are harmful and abusive to them. We are a non-partisan, non-religious, tax-deductible charity. We do not receive any government funding and rely solely on donations to make an impact. Support our work today.
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