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About The Women’s Electoral Lobby

Last updated on January 19, 2024

The Women’s Electoral Lobby was formed just prior to the 1972 election.

These notes were written by the Women’s Electoral Lobby.

WEL’s Background

The Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) was formed in 1972 just prior to a Federal election. WEL’s first survey of political candidates revealed a gross lack of knowledge or even interest in the many issues affecting women in Australia.

Further surveys gained public notoriety and encouraged the formation of branches in all capital and many regional cities. Since then, winning government has often been attributed to the women’s vote. Over the years, WEL has continued to provide well researched submissions to both sides of the political fence on a range of issues, from economics and employment, to health and human relationships. WEL policies have been based on the assumption of women’s right to choose and to control her own destiny; WEL’s approach has been to demand that right be entrenched into legislation, and embedded in political, economic and social structures.

Vision and Mission

The Women’s Electoral Lobby in Australia is an organisation dedicated to creating a society where women’s participation and potential are unrestricted, acknowledged and respected, and where women and men share equally in society’s responsibilities and rewards.

WEL believes in the strength of women working together. WEL asserts that women’s knowledge, skills and experiences are essential to a well functioning society, and that improving women’s lives improves society as a whole. In pursuing a feminist future, WEL respects and values diversity among women. (adopted 1996).

The policies of WEL are based on the premise that a just society must recognise that women’s rights, responsibilities, contributions and needs are of equal value with men’s, though not necessarily identical. Economic, technological, scientific, social development and achievement must be pursed in ways that give the goals of justice for all the highest priority. WEL policies are directed to two basic ends:

  • redressing resistant and persistent inequities in the current position of women in Australian society;
  • ensuring that women can make an equal contribution to its future development.

WEL Structure

There are WEL organisations in every State and Territory, and in some regional centres as well. Each organisation operates within its own state jurisdiction but in addition, a National Office based in Canberra ensures communication and co-ordination among WEL organisations and acts as the prime voice on Federal issues. This office has been funded by the Prime Minister’s department for many years in recognition of the legitimate role WEL plays in representing the views of Australian women. The National Co-ordinator reports to a National Management Committee, comprising representatives from each major organisation around Australia. WEL Australia is an incorporated body.

WEL membership includes all sides of the political spectrum and all age ranges.

Since its inception in 1972, WEL has represented the views of Australian women to governments at all levels through many letters and submissions, and has contributed to women’s education and civic development through regular conferences, seminars and workshops, and to wider community understanding of issues through print and electronic media.

WEL Policies Relating to Abortion

Guiding principle:

WEL supports the well-established ethical principle that decisions ought to be made by those most affected by them. Presently in Australia, it is doctors who control the decision about pregnancy termination. This interferes with a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body. WEL rejects the view that society must somehow be protected from women’s actions by making the medical profession or the judiciary responsible for such decisions. On the contrary, WEL asserts that women are perfectly capable of making morally sound decisions and that research indicates the best outcome is achieved if women are in control of the decision about pregnancy termination.

WEL Policy on Women’s Health

WEL sees the issue of abortion in the context of women’s health. WEL agrees with the World Health Organisation definition that health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well being and not merely the absence of disease of infirmity. To meet this definition of health for women, WEL asserts that:

  • all health services should be reviewed to ensure they accept the social model of health, that health care, contraceptive care and any other service must be available to all regardless of their ability to pay;
  • specific women-run health services must be available and broad principles of gender equity in delivery, priorities, research and service must be intrinsic to the entire health care system.

WEL Policy on Abortion

In order to achieve the above definition of health for women, WEL believes that:

  • safe, legal abortion should be one of the choices available to women faced with unwanted pregnancy;
  • no woman should be forced, either by laws or pressure from others, to continue an unwanted pregnancy nor to obtain an abortion against her will;
  • these views are shared by the majority of Australian women.

Women will decide whether or not to continue their pregnancies in the light of their own religious and/or moral values. It is appropriate they do so. People who are opposed to abortion regardless of circumstances are entitled to their view. They have no right to impose that view on others, however.

The right of choice is fundamental to a democratic society. The right of choice assumes the control of one’s body. Without it a woman becomes subject to the beliefs and demands of others. It is a basic right of a woman to choose when and if she will bear a child. Equality is impossible without control of fertility. There is no perfect contraceptive. For some women, it is not easily available; for some it is a health hazard; for some it is too expensive; for some the chosen method fails. WEL therefore affirms that:

  • every woman has the right to choose when and if she will bear a child;
  • all references to abortion be removed from the criminal codes of the States and Territories of Australia, thereby ensuring that abortion is regulated, as are all other medical services, under health care legislation;
  • support services should be available to all women, those seeking abortion and those wishing to continue pregnancies.

While demanding the right of access to safe, legal abortion, WEL acknowledges that:

  • contraception is preferable to abortion;
  • there is no perfect contraception;
  • reliance on abortion alone is not a responsible method of planned
  • early abortion is preferable to late abortion;
  • skilled, legal abortion is preferable to unsafe, illegal abortion.

Underlying Issues

Abortion will always be with us.

Abortion is a world-wide phenomenon and has been used as a primary method of birth control for all of human history. The World Health Organisation estimates that one in three pregnancies is deliberately terminated world-wide. Many of these abortions are carried out in unsafe circumstances and lead to substantial rates of death and injury to women.

Major changes in rates of abortion only occur when reliable contraception becomes available.

Moves in the last century in the United Kingdom to restrict access to abortion were based both on a concern for the welfare of women at a time when abortion was a dangerous intervention, and an attempt at the same time to control women’s sexuality. Access to legal abortion was denied but this only forced women into illegal and unsafe services, leading to injury and death.

Abortion today is the second most common therapeutic surgical procedure in Australia. Yet it remains marginalised by health services, and is not formally part of some medical curricula.

Abortion recognised by International Organisations.

WEL asserts that women’s right to choose abortion is implied in several articles of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Article 12 requires signatories to ensure “access to health care services, including those related to family planning”. There can be no doubt that abortion is related to family planning.

The United Nations International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo, 1994) recognised abortion as a major public health issue and governments agreed to take action to reduce the harm caused.

The UN Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995) confirmed this approach. Along with many other Governments, Australia agreed to “Consider reviewing laws containing punitive measures against women who have undergone illegal abortions” (par 107k). WEL has urged the Government to act on this undertaking by removing abortion from all criminal codes in Australia.

Public Support for Abortion

The right of access to abortion enjoys a high level of community support which has risen since the mid 1980s. In 1994, 85% approved abortion if the woman’s life were endangered; 70% accepted abortion as a right if the woman is not married and does not want to marry; 67% supported abortion in circumstances of low income where a family cannot afford more children. In all cases, these rates of approval were significantly up from ten years previously, showing increasing community acceptance of the need for abortion services.

In 1980, a survey conducted by the Women’s Weekly magazine asserted that “The Voice of the Australian Women says: Abortion should be freely available”.Their survey showed 94% of women were in favour of abortion being available. Sixteen per cent of the women surveyed said they had had an abortion, and contrary to popular belief, the majority of women said they suffered no after effects. WEL sent a copy of the magazine to all Victorian State politicians, pointing out the strength of women’s support for safe, legal abortion services.

Based on statistics like these, WEL urged politicians to accept the following messages:

  • women must have the right to choose;
  • abortion is practised and always has been;
  • abortion is widely accepted in the Australian community;
  • abortion is a safe medical procedure;
  • a pro-choice stand will not jeopardise their seat.

History of Wel’s Activities Related to Abortion

Birth Control Policy

By 1975, WEL had an established policy on birth control (family planning). WEL called for establishment of clinics separate from existing medical services, staffed by specially trained personnel. The policy recommended clinics should offer a full range of contraceptive advice and services, including abortion referral, and be publicly funded. Sex education was an integral part of the policy.

Birth Control Clinic in Warrnambool

In 1977, a WEL group submitted a request to the Warrnambool City Council for establishment of a Birth Control Clinic. Drawing upon the 1968 UN Declaration on Population and Family Planning which stated “Family planning is a basic human right”, the submission noted the lack of local services to inform and counsel women about pregnancy and contraception, and argued that such services should be freely available.

The Monbulk (Victoria) Election

In March 1982, The Right to Choose Coalition (WEL, the Union of Australian Women, and the YWCA) nominated Dr Bertram Wainer to stand for the Victorian seat of Monbulk, in order to allow electors a means of expressing opposition to a Right to Life candidate, Mrs Jean Langworthy. The result clearly showed that people supported pro-choice policies: Dr Wainer achieved nearly four times as many primary votes as Mrs Langworthy, and the Right to Life movement failed to control the direction of preferences.

Reproductive Choice

In 1986, WEL recommended that Federal funds be directed to teaching health and human relationships courses in all Australian schools, and to extending family planning services (particularly in isolated areas and among non English speaking background Australians). WEL also recommended that termination of pregnancy be considered as any other medical procedure and called for the repeal of all state and territory laws restricting abortion. WEL called for continuation of Medicare funding of abortion.

Access to Abortion Services

In 1988, WEL made a submission to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, pointing out that Australia appears to be the only country in the world where abortion law differs in different parts of the country. WEL argued that while judicial interpretation of the law has liberalised access in some states, restrictive statutes remain. Access to safe abortion is therefore unequal and sporadic enforcement of statutory laws causes uncertainty and fear. Because most abortions are conducted in special clinics and these are generally located in capital cities, women from rural and remote areas lack equal access to services.

National Policy on Women’s Health

Also in 1988, WEL submitted a response to the Discussion Paper on a National Policy on Women’s Health to the Special Consultant to the Minister for Community Services and Health. While endorsing the Discussion Paper’s recommendations, WEL called for more emphasis on acknowledgement of the health risks associated with motherhood, especially for those who are geographically or socially isolated. It recommended tied funding be used to expand the role of Infant and Maternal Health Centres into “Neighbourhood Health Centres”.

A submission was also made by the Right To Choose Coalition, representing WEL, the Union of Australian Women and the YWCA of Melbourne. This submission asserted that it is vital to a woman’s health during her reproductive years to have the choice of abortion if she does not wish to continue a pregnancy. It pointed out that legislation banning abortion does not prevent women from terminating pregnancies but causes them to resort to illegal and unsafe abortion. It recommended:

  • immediate removal of abortion from criminal codes;
  • funding for birth control information services;
  • funding to train teachers in health and human relationships courses;
  • guarantees of continued Medicare funding of abortions; and
  • immediate entry of the abortificant RU 486 for research purposes.

Abortion Funding

On a number of occasions, there have been attempts to restrict access to abortions by removing their funding from Medicare. In 1979, the Lusher Bill was defeated after a concerted campaign by WEL in conjunction with a coalition of other interested women’s groups. Again in 1990, Alisdair Webster (Liberal NSW) sought to introduce a bill to abolish Medicare funding for abortions. WEL lobbied vigorously to ensure this bill did not proceed, on the basis that its intent was not to prohibit abortion but to prevent poor women having access to a safe medical procedure and having to resort instead to backyard abortion. WEL pointed out that no legislation has ever prevented desperate women from terminating unwanted pregnancies.

Review of Services

Last year, WEL supported all the recommendations of the Review of Services for the Termination of Pregnancy in Australia (National Health and Medical Rese arch Council Draft Consultation Document, October 1995) but added the need to ensure abortion was finally removed from criminal codes by recommending “That all State and Territory Governments be strongly encouraged to remove sections referring to abortion from their respective Crimes Acts immediately”. This is made all the more urgent given current efforts to arrive at a National Model Criminal Code by the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General. Their latest Discussion Paper on “Non Fatal Offences Against the Person” includes a section on Abortion, thus continuing the assumption that abortion should remain on the criminal code.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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