Human Rights experts warn against US-style politicisation of reproductive rights in Australia

March 9, 2023

Leading human rights experts have warned that National’s Senator Matthew Canavan’s Human Rights (Children Born Alive Protection) Bill 2022 (the Bill) risks a dangerous politicisation of healthcare in Australia by replicating the rhetoric of the US anti-abortion movement and undermining long-settled international human rights standards.

The Bill, which is currently the subject of a Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry, would introduce measures that require health practitioners to provide medical care, treatment and statistics on children born alive as a result of terminations.  In a submission to the inquiry, Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR) is calling for the Bill to be rejected in its entirety.

Associate Professor Tania Penovic, Senior Chair of ALHR’s Women and Girls’ Rights Committee said, “This Bill stigmatises pregnant people, demonises healthcare providers and is founded on two fundamental misunderstandings. First, the Bill misunderstands the realities of healthcare provision in Australia. Second, the Bill misunderstands the normative content and scope of the international human rights law standards it purports to advance.”

The Bill purports to give effect to Australia’s international human rights obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). By invoking the external affairs power under Australia’s Constitution, the Bill, if enacted, would override inconsistent state laws.

However, Associate Professor Penoic says, “While the Bill co-opts the language of human rights and purports to implement Australia’s human rights obligations under international law, it fundamentally misunderstands the normative content of the obligations it purports to give effect to, and ignores the jurisprudence with respect to these obligations”. 

“The consequence of this misunderstanding is that the enactment of this Bill would have a deleterious effect on Australia’s human rights performance – not only its ICCPR and CRC obligations, but also its obligations under the Convention Against Torture (CAT), Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).” 

“If enacted, these measures would undermine abortion access, impede the implementation of Australia’s human rights obligations and run counter to the recommendations of United Nations human rights treaty bodies.”

ALHR has also joined members of the medical community in highlighting that the Bill seeks to address a problem that does not exist. Associate Professor Penovic notes, “The overwhelming majority of abortions in Australia occur before the point of foetal viability.” 

Providers of abortion care have observed that the Bill bears little resemblance to the reality of medical practice. Dr Catriona Melville, deputy medical director of MSI Australia has described the situation contemplated by the Bill as one ‘that by the nature of the procedure wouldn’t occur’. Doctors have observed that in the rare cases where a live birth may occur, the foetus is not viable. Professor Caroline da Costa from the Cairns Institute at James Cook University has observed that ‘These foetuses have some serious abnormalities: some may have no kidneys, some may have no brain, or serious heart abnormalities -that is why the termination happens. They are not viable.’

Associate Professor Penovic continued, “ALHR is concerned this Bill seeks to politicise healthcare by replicating the language and methodologies of the United States anti-abortion movement. The politicisation of abortion in the US has undermined healthcare access, generated vast inequity in healthcare provision and has seen the US become the nation with the highest maternal death rate among high income countries.”

“Australia must guard against such politicisation to ensure equitable access to evidence-based healthcare that protects peoples internationally recognised human rights.”

“We urge that the Bill be rejected in its entirety.”

Read ALHR’s submission here

Contact: Matt Mitchell, ALHR media manager 0431 980 365