Australia Lifting Gag Rule on Foreign Aid for Abortion?

The Australian Agency for International Development is considering lifting a ban on foreign aid funding for abortion services, a proposal which has sparked significant divisive debate across the political spectrum.

The Australian
Agency for International Development (AusAID) is considering lifting
a 12-year-old ban on foreign aid funding for abortion services, a proposal
which has sparked significant divisive
across the
entire Australian political spectrum. The current policy prevents Australian aid funds from
being used for "activities that involve abortion training or services,
or research trials or activities, which directly involve abortion drugs."  In practice, this has prohibited aid recipients
from providing women access to abortion services, even
when an abortion would be necessary to save her life, as well as information
and education about safe and unsafe abortions. 

The parallels
to the US global gag rule are obvious. The Australian policy was instigated
by pro-life independent Senator Brian Harradine. Despite the fact that
Senator Harradine retired in 2005, the aid restrictions have remained.
Senator Harradine also secured a ban on emergency contraception, which
was overturned in 2002, and RU-486 (Mifepristone),
which was overturned in February 2006 after a conscience vote in Federal Parliament. 

A strong opponent
can been found in the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population and Development,
which in May 2007 published a paper arguing for amendment of the funding
restrictions. The report, "Sexual and Reproductive Health
and the Millennium Development Goals in the Australian Aid Program – the
Way Forward" rightly described the restrictions as "cruel and illogical."
The report also recommended that family planning, contraception, and sexual
and reproductive health services should be integrated with HIV/AIDS
programs and that the proportion of Australia’s overseas aid budget
devoted to sexual and reproductive health should be increased to at
least 10 percent. At the time the report was released, in the lead up
to the last Australian election, it was ignored by former Prime Minister

However, change is in the air.

The current Prime Minister Rudd,
who beat Howard in the last election in January 2008 thanks to voters seeking
fresh leadership and new ideas, is thankfully reconsidering the issue. 

This change
could not possibly be needed more urgently given the grave harm to women’s
health and rights that result from the narrow-minded restrictions. Australia’s aid
on Asia and the Pacific, with selective assistance also provided to
Africa and the Middle East. Approximately, 50
percent of unsafe abortions

globally occur in the Asia-Pacific region and about one-third of these results in maternal death.
I recently reported on the dire
family planning needs of East Timor
a country that suffers 68,000 unsafe abortions a year. Australia has
indeed been one of the strongest supporters of East Timor, with an estimated
overseas development aid for 2008-2009 of $AUS96.3 million. It is truly tragic that misdirection
of these funds in any way contributes to the stark number of maternal
deaths amongst Timorese women resulting from unsafe abortion.

will also have an estimated overseas development aid of $AUS113.5 million
for South Asia

from 2008-2009, covering Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and
Nepal. Nepal has already experienced hampered
family planning services

under the global gag rule, reflecting negatively on
the likely impact of AusAID’s guidelines. In India, too, at least 18,000
die every
as a result of unsafe abortion.

Any policy that denies women access
to comprehensive family planning information and safe legal abortion
services leaves women little choice but to seek unsafe services, despite
the likelihood of death or the health complications that inevitably

for those waiting for change, however, is the voice of Senator Ron Boswell, a conservative of the National Party. Boswell is leading
efforts to keep the restrictions in place. Warning Prime Minister Rudd
that he could face a backlash from Christian voters, he recently commented:
"[Prime Minister Rudd] cuddled up to the churches for the last election…If
he does this to them then they’ll turn upon him." Ultimately, the
fate of women’s health in the region is largely in the hands of Foreign
Minister Stephen Smith, who will make the final decision on whether
to amend the government policy.

It is an inherent
contradiction that Australia’s overseas development agency, whose aim is "to assist developing countries
reduce poverty and achieve sustainable development" has guidelines
that restrict women’s access to a full range of family planning information
and services. Australia’s "aid" to countries in the region cannot
be truly effective unless it aligns with, rather than is contrary to,
the countries’ needs and priorities. The 2005
World Summit
the centrality of reproductive health to development with a high-level
commitment to achieving universal access to reproductive health by 2015. This clearly reflects the importance of integrating this goal in overall strategies
for sustainable development. It is not that the Australian Government
does not recognize the value of the MDGs, but rather its focus reflects
a prioritization of some goals, like climate change
and business development, over others like reproductive health. 

of the Australian Reproductive Health Alliance Jane Singleton
has encapsulated the issue: "This
is not about providing abortions in countries where it is illegal but
providing full access to family planning and education about unsafe
abortion and where abortion is legal, to safe abortion."

Australia has some of the most liberal abortion laws in the world, with
relatively broad accessibility on paper and in practice. If the rights
of Australian women to make choices about their reproductive health
are guaranteed, there is no reason why these rights protections should
be denied to women in the region. An AusAID commitment to ending poverty
and gender inequity in the region demands abolition of these funding