In 2001, newly-elected US President George Bush made international headlines when he announced changes to how international aid organisations were to be funded with US money. Known as the "Global Gag Rule", aid organisations were informed that, in order to continue receiving US government funding, they could no longer provide any information about abortion to their clients.
What is perhaps not as well known is that the Australian government has had the same policy towards its main aid organisation, AusAID, since 1996.
The Australian Reproductive Health Alliance states that there is "a ban on information, education or any communication about unsafe or safe abortion; a ban on any training of medical personnel in safe abortion techniques; a ban on access to emergency contraception (EC) in the aid program ... Under AusAID's Guidelines no information about abortion can be given and no service provided even to save the life of the woman and even in countries where abortion is legal."
While such a ban has obvious health impacts, it also has a greater toll on the rights of women worldwide to decide on what happens to their own bodies. Emily Maguire, in her opinion piece for the December 31 Sydney Morning Herald explained it succinctly, "The ability to decide on the timing of pregnancy and childbirth is fundamental to a woman's ability to make decisions and act autonomously in every other area of her life ... Family planning services, such as those banned by AusAID, save women's lives, improve their ability to contribute to society, help to reduce overpopulation and infant mortality, and slow the spread of diseases including HIV/AIDS. All of these things, in turn, work to reduce poverty and raise the life expectancy and health outcomes of the community as a whole."
PM Kevin Rudd is now reported to be considering overturning this policy in light of a report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population and Development, currently chaired by Liberal MP Mal Washer. The report was initially submitted to the Howard government in May 2007, but was quietly shelved due to fear of alienating the conservative base of the party in a crucial election year. The report argued that the policy has contributed to the death of women in many countries overseas.
In East Timor, there is a birth rate of 8.5 children per woman and a maternal death rate 20 times greater than that of Australia. Similar statistics from around the world add up to
the fact that, globally, one woman dies in childbirth every minute. Unsafe abortion results in permanent injury or disease for five million women and at least 68,000 deaths each year.
In an interview with the January 8 Age newspaper, Washer explained, "it is ridiculous that we can't give any advice to women overseas about abortion at a time when the government funds abortion advice to women in this country. It smacks of misogyny and stupidity."
The report stated the guidelines preventing AusAID from advising women on abortion were "cruel and illogical" and effectively encouraged illegal abortions, accounting for 13% of all maternal deaths internationally. The report also argued that universal access to contraception and safe pregnancy terminations would reduce maternal deaths by up to 35% and child deaths by 20%.
The report, written after a series of roundtable discussions in 2006, boasts broad support from both Labor and Liberal party MPs. Federal opposition leader Brendan Nelson told reporters on January 8: "We also need to recognise and respect the religious convictions and views that are held by women in the developing world and also to see that they have access to an appropriate level of education so that they understand what they are able to do in relation to family planning."
However, overturning these guidelines may be met with strong opposition from within the Labor Party itself. Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association national secretary and ALP national executive member, Joe de Bruyn — also a conservative Catholic — told the January 11 Australian he was staunchly opposed to any such changes and would consider raising the matter with the government.
De Bruyn, who is a powerful figure in the Victorian ALP right, has also been vocal on whether to allow the use of the so-called "abortion drug", RU486, and a reported plan for state-based marriage registers for same-sex couples.
While the internal machinations of the ALP grind on, women who are affected by the AusAID ban on abortion information continue to suffer. It is crucial that women's rights campaigners demand the Rudd government dump this archaic ban immediately — for the health and well-being of women globally.