Pro-choice activists are angry that the federal government has subcontracted parts of its $51 million National Pregnancy Telephone Hotline contract to anti-abortion groups.
Federal health minister Tony Abbott said on January 2 that Centacare, the Catholic church's health and welfare arm, and the Caroline Chisholm Society, also affiliated to the church, had been awarded a $15.5 million contract to provide counsellor training.
Devora Lieberman, national president of Sexual Health and Family Planning Australia, which unsuccessfully tendered for the contract, criticised the decision, arguing that Catholic groups will not be able to provide independent advice on abortion. "We know that the Catholic church has a very strong anti-abortion stance in all circumstances except ... if a woman is diagnosed with ovarian cancer during pregnancy", Lieberman said on January 2.
Australian Democrats Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja accused the federal government of deliberately shutting out pro-choice groups from the counselling program and argued that the government has "a responsibility to make sure women do have access to federally funded counselling services".
The latest contract is on top of already generous funding to anti-abortion groups that run pregnancy counselling services. According to Reproductive Choice Australia (RCA), in 2004 the Australian Federation of Pregnancy Support Services, a peak body for 29 anti-choice groups, received $300,000 in federal funding.
These groups run telephone pregnancy counselling hotlines which refuse to discuss abortion as an option or refer callers to abortion service-providers. They do not disclose their opposition to abortion. Unsuspecting callers have been abused by so-called counsellors, being told that they are "murderers" or that they will "go to hell" if they choose abortion. RCA estimates that approximately 11,000 women a year come into contact with these false providers.
The biased awarding of contracts to anti-choice groups is one of a string of attacks against women's right to choose since Abbott was appointed minister of health and ageing in 2003. Abbott has admitted that his conservative Catholic beliefs inform his emphatic opposition to abortion. In March 2004, he said Australia's abortion rate was too high and a "national tragedy".
In January 2005, Abbott lent his support to a meeting of political parties and religious groups sponsored by the NSW Right to Life Association. The meeting adopted a statement opposing late-term abortions, and called for mandatory counselling for women seeking abortions.
National Party Senator Ron Boswell used the opportunity to call for an inquiry into abortion. Abbott has also supported compulsory abortion counselling and a "cooling off" period before a woman can access abortion services.
However, the reactionary views of the anti-choice campaigners are not gaining popularity. The 2003 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes conducted by the Australian National University's Centre for Social Research found that more than 80% of respondents supported a woman's right to choose.
In February 2006, the anti-choice agenda was pushed back when a conscience vote in federal parliament removed regulatory control of the abortion pill RU486 from the health minister, returning control to the Therapeutic Goods Administration. A Roy Morgan poll at the time showed that 62% of respondents believed RU486 should be made available.
On February 15, just before the vote on RU486, Abbott gave a speech to parliament in which he implied that women who have abortions should be considered murderers. Immediately following the vote, Abbott said he wanted church-affiliated, or anti-choice, pregnancy counselling groups to be given government funding.
Meanwhile, Greens Senator Kerry Nettle has introduced a bill that aims to ensure transparency of advertising by pregnancy counselling services.