What's behind the anti-abortion AusAID policy?

By Kathy Newnam

Since 1996 the main Australian government overseas aid organisation, AusAID, has been prevented from funding any organisations that provide “abortion training or services, or research, trials or activities which directly involve abortion drugs” even where it could save the life of a woman. The policy was implemented as part of a deal with independent senator Brian Harradine, but has been kept in place long after he retired from politics in 2005. The policy was reviewed by a cross-party parliamentary committee in early 2007 which called for its repeal — a call ignored by the Howard government and to date also by the Rudd Labor government.

While the policy has been “under review” by the Rudd government, foreign affairs minister Stephen Smith (who has the power to rescind the policy at any time without any legislative process), told ABC TV’s Lateline program on June 5: “I wanted to give my parliamentary colleagues the chance, in an orderly way, without any pressure of time, to consider the issue and in due course, the government will make a decision about whether we confirm the current arrangements or move to a different arrangement.”

While Smith carries on being “orderly”, the lives of thousands of women in poor countries are being threatened each year by lack of access to abortion information and services. According to a World Bank report released on July 10, 68,000 women die each year in underdeveloped countries as a result of unsafe abortions, while another 5.3 million suffer temporary or permanent disability as a result.

The utter viciousness of the AusAID anti-abortion policy is that is allows for funding of counseling services for women who have suffered complications from an unsafe abortion, but disallows advice for women on how to seek safe abortion. Further highlighting the hypocrisy of the policy is its stated aim, which includes supporting the principle that “Individuals should decide freely the number and spacing of their children and have the information and means to exercise this choice”. As long as that choice is not abortion!

The review of the policy has triggered an outcry from the anti-abortion lobby, including from Nationals Senator Ron Boswell and ALP national executive member Joe De Bruyn, national secretary of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA). In the June 14 Australian, columnist Angela Shanahan attempted to take the high moral ground in the debate, railing against the call for Australian aid money to be directed toward family planning services and sexual reproductive health under the guise (now a familiar refrain from the anti-abortion lobby) of supporting the rights of women.

Shanahan claimed that opponents of the AusAID anti-abortion policy target “pregnancy as a dangerous condition, to be treated by ‘safe abortion’ rather than targeting the disturbing lack of prenatal care, vaccines, trained midwives, centres equipped for obstetric complications and transportation to those centres”. She deliberately misses the central issue, which is that access to safe abortion services and information is central to women’s health.

Shanahan, a devout Roman Catholic, glibly wrote off the impact of denying such information and services, arguing: “Where women work hard through their pregnancies on poor nutrition, as in Africa, they have the highest rate of miscarriage in the world. In such a climate, abortion is a desperate last resort. It is surprising that the rate of death from septic abortion is not higher than 13 per cent of deaths.”

According to the World Bank, each year there are 76 million unwanted pregnancies in the Third World, resulting either from women not using contraceptives or the contraceptives they use failing. The reasons why women do not use contraceptives most commonly include concerns about possible health and side-effects and the belief that they are not at risk of getting pregnant. That is, a lack of access to information.

Shanahan’s opposition to abortion extends to opposing the call for any increased funding for family planning services. Like all of her misogynist ilk, Shanahan supports keeping women prisoners of their reproductive system.

In her June 14 column, Shanahan attempted to conflate the support for abortion rights with racist population control programs that have been funded by the West in the Third World. She wrote: “To portray [abortion] as a right and a coldly rational decision — of the Western feminists and population planners — is perverse in the extreme. In the past, this sort of logic has been used to support aggressive family planning in China, Africa and Peru, where UN-sponsored programs ran roughshod over culture and religion and were halted only when women died after mass tubal ligations. No wonder they were defunded.” Unable to find a hearing for their anti-choice views, anti-abortionists like Shanahan regularly resort to bald-face lies and misinformation in an attempt to discredit those they oppose.

In fact, it is those who share Shanahan’s anti-choice outlook who are imposing their views upon women in the Third World. The racism inherent in the policy is plain — imposing a ban on funding for abortion services for the non-white women of Third World countries receiving Australian government aid money, while abortion continues to be funded through Medicare in Australia (albeit poorly funded). But the anti-abortion lobby, with all its feigned concern for women’s health, dodges this point because it is the crux of the issue. The anti-abortionists have no concern for women in the Third World — they are fundamentally opposed to women being able to choose abortion (and any other form of birth control).

Attempting to have First World governments impose their anti-abortion bigotry on Third World countries continues the centuries-long practice of white colonialism in fostering and deepening anti-democratic practices and views about women’s role in society. The Christian clergy played an important role in providing justification for this imperial practice, and they continue to. It is little surprise that Mark Green, head of the Catholic charity Caritas, the biggest provider of aid to the South Pacific island-nations, was the only opponent of funding for abortion services quoted by Shanahan.

Sexist and outright misogynist ideas are fostered in order to keep women subjugated to men, often being totally deprived of their most basic human rights. This subjugation is necessary to ensure that women provide unpaid household labour. In developed capitalist countries like Australia, women are also concentrated in the lowest paid sectors of the economy.

On July 22, Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick told reporters that 25 years after the introduction of sex discrimination laws, gender inequality remains rife in Australian workplaces. After a six-month “listening tour” where she spoke to more than 1000 people in metropolitan, regional and remote areas, she had concluded that “there is still systemic sex discrimination” against women workers, with women earning an average of 16% less than men, largely because mothers who work part-time are unable to get better-paid jobs.

Reporting on Broderick’s findings, the July 25 Sydney Daily Telegraph observed: “The ideal employee and the one most likely to be promoted is one who can work longer than normal hours, travel and be available 24/7. And that’s more likely than not to be a man because traditionally they are not seen as having responsibility for caring even if they have kids.”

Throughout the capitalist world, in both rich and poor countries, being a mother is still presented as a woman’s primary social role. The anti-abortionists, particularly the misogynist Roman Catholic Church, seek to deny women any other choice by seeking to have abortion and all other birth control measures banned. Where they can’t have abortion outlawed, they seek to have rich-country government healthcare aid programs to poor countries made conditional on the non-provision of even information about abortion services.

Since 1984, the US imperialist government has spearheaded this with its “global gag rule”, a law that cuts off USAID funding for any organisation that even mentions the word “abortion”. The similarity of the Australian government policy to the US “global gag rule” is another indication that the issue runs far deeper than that “legacy of Haradine”, which is what much of the mainstream commentary on the issue has focused on. The Howard government used the deal with Harradine as a cover for introducing a policy that was thoroughly consistent with its anti-women’s rights agenda. And just as state Labor governments across the country use the tiny anti-abortion lobby as an excuse not to decriminalise abortion, the federal Labor government is now using the anti-abortionists as a cover for its refusal to immediately repeal the AusAID anti-abortion policy.