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Counselling, information and referral

Pregnancy counselling in Australia

The lack of publicly-available information for women regarding pregnancy options in Queensland mean many of them turn to GPs or pregnancy counselling organisations for support and assistance when faced with an unplanned pregnancy.

Individual women experience unplanned pregnancy differently. Not all women want or need counselling; a national survey in 2006 found that three out of four women who had experienced an unplanned pregnancy did not want to speak to a counsellor [1]. Many women discuss their decision with their partner or with a close friend or family member, and for some the decision is not a difficult one – sometimes information on how to act on that decision is all they need. For others, it can be a more difficult or demanding experience and can represent a crisis point in their lives. For those who aren’t comfortable talking through their decision with friends, family or their GP (or their GP is anti-abortion), the availability of independent and unbiased counselling and information is essential.

Transparency in advertising for pregnancy counselling is a major concern of Children by Choice and other reproductive health advocates.

Because many Australian pregnancy counselling services are run on a not-for-profit basis (often by faith-based groups or their affiliates) and offer services for free or by donation, they are not subject to the trade practices legislation that regulates misinformation and false advertising. According to the federal parliament website: 

"A service that provides counselling or information without charge is not deemed to be engaged in a commercial transaction or an act of trade and so is exempt from operating within the confines of the Trade Practices Act 1974. Section 52 of this Act states:

A corporation shall not, in trade or commerce, engage in conduct that is misleading or deceptive or is likely to mislead or deceive.

Consequently there is no legislative basis for ensuring that free-of-charge pregnancy counselling providers both do not engage in advertising that may be perceived as deceptive or misleading or that they provide key information which may be sought by potential clients." [2] 

This creates an environment where services claiming to give information on abortion and respect women’s choices are not compelled to reveal anti-choice bias or policy. Unfortunately this allows these organisations to provide inaccurate and sometimes intentionally-misleading information on abortion and its availability to women experiencing an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy, like Sara:

Sara called Children by Choice in July 2010, when she was 5 weeks pregnant. She was hesitant to ask for the information she wanted – where to get an abortion – and it soon emerged that when she was pregnant in 2008 she had had a very negative experience with a ‘pregnancy counselling and support service’ in her home state of Victoria.

To her shock, the counsellor began by showing her graphic pictures of an aborted  fetus, and told her this is what it would look like if Sara ‘killed her baby’. The counsellor told Sara that most young women who have had an abortion regretted it, and that if she went ahead with an abortion she would get breast cancer and suffer depression for the rest of her life. Distressed and shocked, Sara explained the circumstances of the pregnancy, a brutal sexual assault by an ex-partner, to which the counsellor replied that many women like rough sex and asked why she didn’t use a condom.

Sara went ahead with the termination despite the intimidation she suffered at this service. When she found herself pregnant this time, she called Children by Choice in Brisbane as she was so unsure which of her local services she could trust. She was still dealing with the emotional trauma which her anti-choice ‘counsellor’ inflicted, and had several conversations with our counsellors before she felt ready to trust that they would not judge her or try to force her into a particular decision.

Attempts at legislative change 

In 2005 Children by Choice worked with Senator Natasha Stott Despoja and other pro-choice organisations such as Reproductive Choice Australia (RCA) and GetUp! to introduce the Transparent Advertising and Notification of Pregnancy Counselling Services Bill (2005).

This Bill was specifically designed to ensure that anti-choice services or those who did not provide referrals for termination procedures were forced to make this clear when advertising to the public.

A Senate enquiry ran a public consultation on the bill, to which Children by Choice made a written submission as well as appearing at a committee hearing during the enquiry. We also contributed to the Reproductive Choice Australia submission to the enquiry, available on their website.

Following the enquiry, the Bill was transformed into the Pregnancy Counselling (Truth in Advertising) Bill 2006 and introduced and supported by women senators from all major parties.

It did not pass the Senate.

Further developments in pregnancy counselling: the impact of the RU486 debate

In 2006 the ministerial veto on the importation of medical abortion drug RU486 was repealed. Tony Abbott, then Federal Health Minister, spoke out on the “national tragedy” of abortion and, having lost the battle against medication abortion, vowed to set up a National Pregnancy Support Telephone Helpline in an attempt to lower the abortion rate [3].

Children by Choice applied through the tender process to run the national helpline but was unsuccessful. The tender was awarded to McKesson Asia Pacific in conjunction with Catholic welfare agency Centacare [4].

Despite extensive concerns and campaigning by the Association and other pro-choice organisations the helpline was set up and, without any legislation regulating it, was free to advertise as ‘open to all options’.

Over the following years Children by Choice received numerous calls from women who had previously contacted the national helpline for information and support with an unplanned pregnancy, and had received no assistance. The helpline operators did not refer women for abortion and callers were not referred to other services relating to abortion, even if this is what they specifically requested [4].

In 2010 the national helpline was relaunched as the Pregnancy, Birth and Baby helpline, covering all birth-related health issues and referring women to abortion services if asked specifically and meeting certain criteria. However, transparency issues continue all across the country, and independent all options services such as Children by Choice are rare. 

 

References

1. What women want when faced with an unplanned pregnancy Research by WebSurvey, commissioned by Marie Stopes International Australia. November 2006. Available online at http://www.mariestopes.org.au/data-and-research/what-women-want-when-faced-with-unplanned-pregnancy/.

2. Transparent advertising and notification of pregnancy counselling services Bill 2005: overview of the Inquiry by the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee is available on the federal parliament website at http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Community_Affairs/Completed_inquiries/2004-07/pregnancy_counselling/report/c01

3. 'Govt to fund more pregnancy counselling' ABC PM, 2 March 2006. Transcript available online at http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2006/s1582591.htm

4. 'Pregnancy helpline criticised' ABC PM, 1 May 2007. Transcript available online at http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2007/s1911644.htm.

Last modified on: 04 July 2016
Pregnancy counselling in Australia
04 July 2016