Howard And Abbott Abortion Counselling Press Conference

This is the press conference held by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Health Minister Tony Abbott on the subject of pregnancy support counselling.

They announced that the government would introduce a Medicare payment for pregnancy support counselling by General Practitioners. Additionally, the government would fund a National Pregnancy Support telephone helpline.

  • Listen to Howard and Abbott (24m)

Transcript of joint press conference with Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Health Minister Tony Abbott.

HOWARD: Well ladies and gentlemen this news conference has been called by Mr Abbott and me to announce some Government proposals regarding pregnancy support counselling.

The Government has decided on two things. The first is to introduce a new Medicare payment for pregnancy support counselling by General Practitioners and on referral by other health professionals. This will provide additional support and information to women who are anxious about a pregnancy and women who have had a pregnancy in the preceding 12 months will also be able to access pregnancy support counselling under Medicare. I stress that what is involved is a new Medicare item for designated General Practitioners who qualify as having the capacity to provide this counselling according to a standard and accreditation which is well known in the medical profession and of which Mr Abbott will be familiar because he is the expert on this and in addition that General Practitioner can refer somebody to an allied health professional and that is the first limb of the proposal.

The second limb is to fund a National Pregnancy Support telephone helpline, which will provide professional non-directive advice on a 24-hour basis, seven days a week.

The helpline will be operated by the successful tenderer in an open tender process which will be conducted in accordance with normal Commonwealth procurement guidelines, under the supervision, as appropriate, of the Department of Health and Ageing. And the counselling provided will be to woman, their partners and husbands and family members who wish to explore pregnancy options.

It will provide advice on a full range of services and organisations available to support pregnant women. It will be for women seeking assistance to decide whether particular organisation, what particular organisation or service they wish to get further advice from. In other words, people go to this organisation, the organisation incidentally will be chosen after advice from a group of qualified professionals so it will be a completely transparent choice process. People will go to the helpline, they will get some counselling, if they want to be referred to an organisation they will be provided with, or directed to a list of organisations and there will be enough information available in relation to those organisations to give an indication of the broad philosophy under which those organisations operate.

And to be very specific if somebody is seeking advice direct to a group or organisation and that person is of absolutely no religious beliefs and wishes to none-the-less obtain counselling from an organisation, well there will be sufficient information available for them to find an organisation that is consonant with their own beliefs and they will feel happy about it.

Equally if somebody has no objection to an organisation with a religious affiliation, or in fact wants an organisation with a religious affiliation there will be enough information available so that they can choose such an organisation. In other words, the referral process will not be cooked in favour of a particular attitude. But I would expect that amongst the organisations that do tender for the helpline and in fact organisations that will be available to provide services, will include organisations and should include organisations that have some religious affiliation and there should be no objection, providing the process is completely even-handed and transparent for that to be the case.

The reason that the Government has decided to make this announcement is based on the fact, and this was reinforced very powerfully during the debate on RU486, and that is, that whilst there is a general view in the Australian community which the Government accepts that the current law in relation to terminations should not be altered and that we should continue to provide Medicare funding for terminations there is none-the-less a very strong view in the Australian community that the abortion rate in this country is too high. Now that is a view I share, it’s a view I know the Minister shares and I know it is a view shared by many people who voted differently from the Minister and myself during the course of that debate.

These measures will provide extra options for people who want some assistance, who are in two minds about whether or not to continue a pregnancy. Obviously you won’t be able to access the new Medicare item if you are simultaneously consulting somebody about a termination and it will not be possible for people who have affiliations with abortion clinics to be involved in relation to the provision of the counselling.

But the whole purpose of this is to provide women in this difficult situation and I said myself during the debate no person wants to be in this situation, but where an unwanted pregnancy occurs, the purpose is to provide additional support, to not assume that the only option is a termination. That is a wholly legitimate view to have and a wholly legitimate additional support network to provide consistent with what I’ve said about the Government’s attitude to any change in the current law relating to abortion. I think this is a sensible and welcome proposal, I want to thank the minister for the work he has put into developing it. I support it very strongly. It has I can say very widespread support within the Government; the measures are expected to cost $51 million over four years. The helpline is expected to cost $15.5 and the Medicare counselling about $35.5 million. The MBS item will start on the 1st of November and the helpline will start within nine months. Any questions?

JOURNALIST: You talk about the list of organisations and say their philosophies, will they have to specifically say if they are pro- or anti-abortion?

HOWARD: Well I don’t think they should, I think they should say that; there should be enough information to indicate the broad philosophy. I mean obviously if there’s an organisation that has, is clearly an affiliate of a Christian denomination well there is no reason why that fact should be disguised and I don’t think it should be.

But the problem about saying whether they should state whether they are for or against abortion, the reality is that people’s attitude depend a great deal on the circumstances. I mean there are some people who are in favour of abortion full stop no matter what the circumstances are and there are some who are against it full stop no matter what the circumstances are. But there are a large number of people who lie in the middle in different points so that’s quite hard. But what we are trying to do is to provide an alternative measure, a way of people exploring the possibility if they are so disposed, of perhaps not having an abortion.

The advice will include all of the options but we are not trying covertly to alter the law but I believe, and I say this quite unapologetically that if you want to respond to community concern in this area, the community is clearly saying we don’t want the law changed, they are saying that very clearly, but equally we’re alarmed at the high rate of abortion and it seems to be that a sensible, modest way of responding to that is this particular proposal.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible) Medicare funded counselling that’s offered will be advice not to go ahead with an abortion?

MINISTER TONY ABBOTT: What all the counselling is going to be is professional counselling and professional counselling is totally different from advocacy. Professional counselling as I understand it means talking to someone about what’s going on inside his or her mind, trying to tease out all the various things that are happening in a person’s life and trying to allow the person to make his or her own best decision, that is what professional counselling is all about and there is a total difference between counselling and advocacy, between counselling and argument. The last thing that any professional counsellor would try to do is to argue a person into adopting a particular point of view or a particular course of action.

JOURNALIST: Given that you say that there are too many abortions and that many people have that view also is the necessary corollary of that that people are having abortions for the wrong reasons?

HOWARD: It’s a necessary consequence of that that we should try and see if we can achieve a reduction in the abortion rate in a manner that does not involve any change in the existing law because the public simultaneously is saying to us and this is very clear that they don’t want the existing law changed. Now a modest, sensible, non-judgmental way of moving in that direction is to do what we are announcing today and that is to say if a person has an unwanted pregnancy, a woman has an unwanted pregnancy and she is in doubt as to what to do, there ought to be some additional support provided and it ought to be funded by Medicare because terminations are funded by Medicare and there is no proposal to alter that and in additional we are going to provide this helpline. So I think this is common sense responsive politics.

We are not trying to double guess the public, we are respecting the view of the public. Whatever our own personal view may be and I don’t want to go into that again, you’ve heard all of that over the last few weeks and people will their own views but it is quite plain to me that people think simultaneously the law should stay as it is and but we don’t like the number of abortions we think it is too high and that is a very clear message that is coming through not only in my own conversations with the Australian public but also with polling that has been done on it.

JOURNALIST: Isn’t it a fact that some women who present at abortion clinics and receive counselling there then decide not to go ahead with the abortion because the counselling they’ve got has been professional. It’s difficult for you to sort of cut that counselling out of the Medicare…?

ABBOTT: We are not cutting out anything which is currently being done. Everything which is currently being done can continue, this is an additional measure. This is over and above what is already happening, what is already being funded and look you are right some abortion providers do provide counselling, some don’t this is an additional source of counselling over and above any which may currently be provided by the clinics.

JOURNALIST: Is there more that could be done to prevent unwanted conception? Has the Government looked at that aspect. Aren’t we shutting the gate after the horse has bolted so to speak?

HOWARD: I won’t try and …

ABBOTT: I’ll leave unwanted conceptions to the PM.

HOWARD: I won’t try and trade metaphors on that subject. I will get myself into appalling trouble. The issue you raise Mark is of course age old. There is no doubt that a full and proper and sensible and effective sex education is tremendously important. The Government supports that in a whole variety of ways. I don’t see this as an alternative and people have been and state governments have doing that for a very long period of time and we will continue to support it. Nothing that we are announcing here in any way is seen by the Government as a substitute for additional support that might be needed to support sex education and the proper encouragement of people to engage in safe sex practices.

JOURNALIST: …consider increasing sex education?

HOWARD: Well we have given a lot of support for sex education but I think there is a need to do this quite separately and apart. I mean there has been a very heavy investment at various levels in sex education but bear in mind that there are a lot of people in the community who hold a view and it’s a view I respect that when it comes to sex education parents have a right to determine the manner in which that education will be delivered to their children and I am not going to upset or interfere with that right but this should not be seen as in any way a substitute for that. We need both.

JOURNALIST: Do you expect that the abortion rate will fall as a result of this policy and if it doesn’t, but women say that the counselling, you know that they support the counselling, it’s been good for them, will that be enough to make…

HOWARD: I don’t expect for a moment that this is something that we are going to take away. Once it’s introduced it will stay part of the Medicare system, unless it were demonstrated that it was having a negative impact and was counterproductive and I’d be very surprised if that were the case. Do I expect the abortion rate to fall? I hope it does but I can’t say any more than that, I hope it does but I don’t think it’s going to be a spectacular fall in the near term but it’s an additional important option and it recognises the view that the public has come to on this. They don’t want the law changed but they are worried about the level of abortion and it is very high in this country, it’s one of the highest in the western world.

JOURNALIST: Mr Howard will the new hotline be able to refer women to abortion clinics and places where they can actually seek a termination and will that be prohibited?

HOWARD: Well I mean nothing is prohibited. I mean obviously, I mean I would imagine that the operator of the helpline, that if somebody rings up and they are clearly are ringing up to find out where an abortion clinic is, well I can’t imagine that it would be an offence to sort of, for the organisation operating the helpline to direct them but I don’t think that is going to happen very often.

JOURNALIST: If the Government’s funding counselling for pregnancy, why doesn’t it fund counselling for other things like depression or…

ABBOTT: We do, abundantly. I mean we spend something like $1.3 billion every year through Medicare and the PBS on various forms of mental health. Then there’s the additional programmes that have been put in place under the better outcomes in mental health programme so there is a massive government effort already deployed towards mental health and under the COAG process that the Prime Minister is very familiar with, more will be happening soon.

JOURNALIST: Should it be mandatory for women seeking a termination or for women seeking counselling to be shown an ultrasound image of the foetus as such?

HOWARD: No…

JOURNALIST: Is that something you would advocate?

HOWARD: Well I don’t support that. Look we are not trying to interfere, let’s make this clear, this is in addition to what already exists and it should not be seen as a replacement for, it should be providing people with further choice and another option. Now that is our approach and I just think that any suggestion to the contrary is wrong.

JOURNALIST: Minister can I direct my previous question to the Prime Minister at you. Do you believe that some women are adopting the wrong reasons for having an abortion?

ABBOTT: I would be very, very reluctant to come to that conclusion because no woman lightly has an abortion and obviously that woman’s reasons are serious and important to her at the time. The important thing is to make sure that women in a difficult position are given as much support as is possible and that’s what this is all about is trying to provide more support to women in a difficult position so that any decision that they make is the best decision for them.

JOURNALIST: Mr Howard on another subject, you are about to go to India, what do you hope to get out of that visit?

HOWARD: I hope that out of this visit there will be a ratchetting up at a government and a business level of the relationship. India in the words of the current Prime Minister is a country with which Australia has a great deal in common but it is not a country that we have much to do with and I hope to change that, not just by this visit but over time. I am taking a large business delegation with me, we are visiting three places in India and I will have extensive discussions with the Prime Minister and other ministers. India of course is a very big country, it has a huge middle class and one of the great challenges of Australia in the years ahead will be to participate fully in the emergence of the great global middle class and I think we are going to find if we haven’t already found it that the countries contributing the most to that phenomenon are India and China and I hope that out of this visit the relationship will broaden and deepen.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, do you feel comfortable with God Save the Queen being played in the presence of the Queen at the Commonwealth Games?

HOWARD: Jim, when Bob Hawke, one of my distinguished predecessors, laid down the protocol for the playing of what then became the Royal Anthem when Advance Australia Fair was established as the Australian anthem in 1984, it was said that the Royal Anthem would be played in Australia whenever the Queen was present. Now I have absolutely no difficulty myself in the playing of God Save the Queen in the presence of Her Majesty I think it’s appropriate when the Queen is present that God Save the Queen be played. That’s my general view and that incidentally was the protocol laid down by Bob Hawke 22 years ago and everybody accepted it and when Her Majesty attends a dinner here God Save the Queen will be played and it’s just matter of good manners whatever, you know it’s got nothing to do with republicanism.

Now as for the Commonwealth Games, I understand, this is what I have been told and I am doing a little research on the subject, but I understand that the practice in the past has been that the only anthem played at the Commonwealth Games is the anthem of the host country. It was an academic issue last time because the Commonwealth Games I think were in Manchester so we we’re doing a little bit of research and checking. But as a matter of principal the correct Australian protocol as laid down by Bob Hawke and I totally support the protocol that Mr Hawke laid down and it was that when Her Majesty is present God Save the Queen should be played as well as of course our own anthem. Now I think it is just a question of good manners.

JOURNALIST: Mr Abbott, do you welcome the fact that your republican colleague Amanda Vanstone agrees with the Prime Minister and thinks it should be played?

ABBOTT: Well as the PM said it’s a question of good manners. I certainly think it would be entirely appropriate to play God Save the Queen and totally appropriate for it to be sung enthusiastically.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister it’s ten years today since you were elected. In the United States Presidents can only serve a maximum of eight years. Do you see any problems with someone running the country for ten years or longer and are you tiring at all of the job?

HOWARD: Well the answer to the second question is no. The answer to the first question is I do not believe in term limits. I don’t believe in fixed terms for parliaments and I don’t believe in term limits, I think term limits are silly. I believe that the present flexible system, Westminster systems adopted in Australia is the best way. I would in appropriate circumstances support four year parliaments but I am not going to die in a ditch about that and you could only get that if you had the support of both sides of politics and I am not absolutely certain incidentally that the Australian public would necessarily support four year parliaments as overwhelmingly as some commentators and some people in the business community think. I wouldn’t be surprised if the mood of the Australian people is we don’t mind four year parliaments for state governments because they matter somewhat less but as far as the federal government is concerned we’d like those characters accountable to us every three years – that’s my sense in the end of what the Australian public may well say.

JOURNALIST: Mr Howard yesterday there was an interesting debate in the Senate where the Democrats moved for the abolition of prayers in parliament, do you think there is still a role for prayers to be said in parliament and why?

HOWARD: Well I certainly do and that motion was based upon a completely misguided understanding of the separation of church and state. What the separation of church and state means in this country is that there is no established church. We don’t have the Church of England or the Anglican church as it is now known and as the official state religion, that’s what it means. It doesn’t mean that we abandon our Judeo-Christian heritage. it doesn’t mean that we eliminate from public life all references to God. I thought it was an absurd proposition and showed a total misunderstanding of the nature of the separation of church and state. Thank you.

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