Women’s Sexual & Reproductive Health requires PM leadership

The Australian Women’s Health Network urged Prime Minister Morrison today to support women’s public health access to important sexual and reproductive health services following the launch of its Women and Sexual and Reproductive Health: Second Edition 2019 Position Paper.

The letter emailed Tuesday 16 April has been reproduced below.

Dear Prime Minister Morrison

The demonstration of your leadership to achieve an important women’s health public policy will be critical to achieve optimum health outcomes for women in across Australia.

Since the release of the Australian Women’s Health Network (AWHN) Women and Sexual and Reproductive Health Position Paper 2012, and in the newly released Second Edition (2019), we have been actively advocating for a national sexual and reproductive health (SRH) strategy for Australia to be developed and funded as a priority. This strategy should have a particular focus on women and address the social determinants of sexual and reproductive ill-health, and incorporate a rights-based approach to ensuring all women can access comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care appropriate to their needs, regardless of their location, age, sexuality, financial status and religious and cultural

A rights-based approach to health recognises women as experts in determining their health needs and is strongly aligned to patient and consumer centred care. It recognises they have the right to self determination, to privacy, to consent to sex, and to receive comprehensive and understandable information to enable them to make the best decisions about their health in the context of their own lives. Women’s reproductive and sexual rights are enshrined in international treaties (Appendix 1) and law which must be upheld Australia-wide.

We are not alone in this advocacy. AWHN has endorsed the call for action by the Public Health Association, Sexual Health & Family Planning Australia and Marie Stopes International, in Advancing sexual and reproductive well-being in Australia: the Melbourne proclamation (2012), for sexual and reproductive rights to be integrated into policy and program planning frameworks. A call to action was released in 2015 to further support the development of a national strategy. Additionally, the Australian Women’s Health Network endorsed the Australia Medical Association’s (2014) call for a national strategy and policy on SRH.

AWHN has raised this issue with every Federal Health Minister since 2012, including Minister Dutton in 2014, Minister Hunt in 2018 and 2019 and to all major political parties. Our advocacy has always included access to safe and legal abortion be provided to all Australian women through the public health system.

We were very concerned at your response to the 6th March ALP commitment to deliver Australia’s first ever National Sexual and Reproductive Health Strategy to make sure all Australian women can access legal, safe and affordable reproductive health services.

At the time you accused Labor of politicising the issue and said:

  • “This is a very controversial and sensitive issue and on these matters I have never sought to divide Australians on this,”
  • “I’m a bit disappointed that it is being raised in the eve of election in a very politically charged context. These are matters that are dealt with by the states and territories. I have no desire to overstep what the constitutional authorities are of the commonwealth in these matters.”
  • “I don’t find that debate one that tends to unite Australians and I certainly am not going to engage in the political elements of that discussion, because frankly I don’t think it is good for our country.”

Your response to this important issue for women, however, does not align with the majority of public opinion and expectations, or with Australia’s international obligations. The 2003 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (AuSSA) found that 81% of those surveyed believed a woman should have the right to choose whether or not she has an abortion. The 2003 AuSSA also found that religious belief and support for legal abortion are not mutually exclusive, with 77% of those who identify as religious also supporting a woman’s right to choose. In late 2011, United Nations Special Rapporteur for Health Anand Grover released a report examining the interaction between the right to health and criminal laws relating to sexual and reproductive health. In it, he stated that the right to sexual and reproductive health is a fundamental part of the right to health. He also stated that criminal and other legal restrictions on abortion violate the right to health and that the application of such restrictions as a means to achieving public health outcomes is ‘often ineffective and disproportionate’. The report urged all UN member states to decriminalise abortion. Whilst decriminalisation has been occurring progressively across Australia, there are also federal powers that can be implemented to improve access and equity in service delivery.

Many Australian voices that have been raising this matter for years and we are raising this with you again in the lead up to the 2019 Federal election. Almost 48% (2.5 million) of all Australian women use some form of contraception. One in four pregnancies are unplanned and studies of Australian women considering abortion have shown that over half of women were using contraception prior to becoming pregnant. Almost one in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime.

We strongly urge you to take leadership and not shy away from making critical changes that are within the power of a federal government. Such leadership will make a significant and lasting, real life difference to all women across Australia.

We again urge you to take action and support women’s public health access to important sexual and reproductive health services across the nation, including access to contraception, safe and affordable abortion and broader sexual health, which are supported by the vast majority of Australians.

Yours sincerely

Marilyn Beaumont OAM, National Chairperson

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