Australia Lifting Gag Rule on Foreign Aid for Abortion?

Ramona Vijeyarasa

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
debate
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
Howard.

However, change is in the air.

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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
program
focuses
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.

Australia
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
women
die every
year
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
result. 

Concerning
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
reaffirmed
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. 

Chief
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."

Interestingly,
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
restrictions. 

Commentary Politics

Punish Women for Abortion? Spare the Outrage: That IS the ‘Mainstream’ Anti-Choice Position

Jodi Jacobson

No matter how much the anti-choice movement dissembles, there is only one reality: The laws and policies pushed by the movement and the politicians it supports punish women both explicitly and implicitly.

In 2014, Jennifer Whalen, a nursing home aide, was sentenced to between 12 and 18 months in jail. Her crime? Trying to obtain medication abortion pills for her teenage daughter, who was facing an unwanted pregnancy. Whalen, who was charged with “performing an illegal abortion,” bought the pills online because the nearest clinic from her home was 75 miles away, and because Pennsylvania has a 24-hour mandated waiting period requiring patients to make two visits to a clinic to obtain an abortion. Without health insurance, and facing loss of income from time off, the costs—of two round-trips to the clinic, a possible overnight stay in Harrisburg, and the procedure itself—became insurmountable. Out of desperation, Whalen turned to the Internet.

Whalen was arrested for a simple reason: Her daughter was pregnant and did not want to be.

Earlier this week, GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump asserted that women who have abortions should face “some form of punishment.” He since “walked it back,” political parlance for being too honest or saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. In response to his initial statement, however, the GOP and leaders of anti-choice groups collectively fell all over themselves criticizing Trump for what they declared to be a position outside the “mainstream” of their movement. Their outcry was political theater at its most insidious: Anti-choice leaders know that their real intentions—to ban abortion and punish women who have them—is a deeply unpopular opinion. So they feign concern for women by talking about “safety,” and “caring,” and “life.” No matter how much they dissemble, however, there is only one reality: The laws and policies pushed by the anti-choice movement and the politicians it supports already punish women both explicitly and implicitly, including by sending them to prison.

The anti-choice movement seeks to punish women through a web of entrapment that, spun just a little bit at a time, harms women in ways that are less noticeable to the rest of us because they don’t make headlines until women start ending up in jail.

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First, anti-choice legislators pass laws to mandate medically unnecessary waiting periods, driving up the costs of abortion care and insulting the intelligence of women who don’t need to be told to wait to figure out how to deal with their own realities. Then, they pass laws to require clinics to mimic ambulatory surgical centers, though abortion is among the safest procedures a person can obtain and there is no reason not to do them in a clinic. This forces many clinics to close because providers can’t recoup the costs of medically unnecessary building renovations, and in turn it leaves women in large swaths of a state without access to care. Then, having cut off many avenues to legal safe abortion care, lawmakers pass laws to make medication abortion inaccessible, again on medically unnecessary grounds. They also pass laws mandating that only doctors can perform abortions, even though nurses and nurse practitioners are perfectly capable of being trained to perform early abortions safely and effectively, as well as to administer medication abortion. Finally, they pass laws making self-induced abortion a crime. Put these together and the anti-choice movement has made a safe, legal abortion virtually impossible to obtain. So when, in desperation, women go to any length to end an unintended pregnancy, legislators punish them further by making them criminals and putting them into jail.

It should not be surprising then that in many states, including Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Utah, where a raft of laws similar to those mentioned above have been passed, women are taking matters into their own hands and paying the price of anti-choice laws. For example, a recent study estimated that in Texas, where abortion access has been severely limited as a result of the omnibus legislation known as HB 2, between 100,000 and 240,000 women have attempted to self-induce. Many of these women, already vulnerable because they are poor or undocumented or are made subject to racial profiling, are policed every day at medical centers and at border crossings where they go to seek medication to terminate a pregnancy. Medication that, by the way, taken correctly is completely safe and could be used for self-induction were it legal.

Women who attempt to self-induce abortion are now routinely charged with crimes. In Georgia, Kenlissia Jones was arrested in 2015 for allegedly using misoprostol to self-induce her abortion. Jones was originally facing two charges: “malice murder” and “possession of a dangerous drug” (i.e. the misoprostol). The murder charge against Jones was dropped, but she still faces punishment for the drug charge. That same year in Arkansas a nurse, Karen Collins, was arrested and faced the charge of “performing an unlicensed abortion” (a class D felony in her state) for allegedly providing a drug to a woman that would allow her to terminate her pregnancy. And in Tennessee, Anna Yocca was charged with attempted murder for a failed self-induced abortion attempt with a coat hanger. Prosecutors later dropped the attempted murder charge but said they would still pursue criminal charges against Yocca, likely for aggravated assault.

These cases are the product of anti-choice laws promoted relentlessly by Americans United for Life, the Susan B. Anthony List, the National Right to Life Committee, the Family Research Council, and others. The fact that the use of these laws to harass, frighten, indict, and imprison women is never protested by anti-choice groups tells you everything you need to know about the movement’s intentions. Punishment.

Moreover, those who seek to outlaw abortion are forever finding new and creative ways to punish women. Feticide laws, for example, were ostensibly created to allow for the prosecution of third-party actors who were violent toward pregnant women and, in turn, harmed a fetus. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 38 states now have feticide or “fetal homicide” laws on the books, and in 23 of these states, these laws can be applied at any stage of pregnancy. While these laws were not originally created with the intent of criminalizing pregnant women for actions they took during their own pregnancy, they are now widely used to do just that. “Pro-life” prosecutors are arresting and indicting women under such laws when they deem that either an action or lack of action by a pregnant woman causes harm to a fetus or leads to pregnancy loss. In fact, these are de facto fetal “personhood” laws of the kind promoted by anti-choice organizations such as Susan B. Anthony List.

There is Bei Bei Shuai, who was charged with murder and attempted feticide for attempting suicide while pregnant. Shuai sat in jail for 435 days until she was released on bail (where she remained under surveillance by an electronic ankle monitor). In August 2013, nearly two and a half years after her prosecution began, she accepted a plea deal to the misdemeanor charge of “criminal recklessness.”

There is Purvi Patel, who was charged with neglect of a dependent and feticide after having a pregnancy loss that the state deemed was a self-induced abortion. She is currently serving a 41-year sentence while her case is on appeal. In three states—Wisconsin, Minnesota, and South Dakota—laws on the books allow for the involuntary civil commitment of pregnant women for “not following doctors’ orders.” Recent cases in which these laws were applied include those of Alicia Beltran and Tamara Loertscher in Wisconsin. As ProPublica has noted in “How States Handle Drug Use During Pregnancy,” hundreds and potentially thousands of women in three states—Alabama, South Carolina, and Tennessee—have faced criminal prosecution under “chemical endangerment laws” that allow for the criminal prosecution of drug use during pregnancy. The anti-choice movement has pushed for and supported these laws.

This is not punishment?

And then consider AJ, a woman on whose case we reported earlier this week. AJ’s teenage daughter became pregnant. Her teacher somehow insinuated herself into the daughter’s decision-making process. Unbenownst to her mother, the teacher called another person, a stranger to this teen, who took her to a so-called crisis pregnancy center, at which the young woman was pressured under threat of “hell and damnation” to sign a document stating she did not want an abortion. These anti-choicers sent the document, containing a raft of personal information including address and social security number, to clinics and police stations in the surrounding area. When AJ’s daughter later decided, after confiding in her mother, that she did in fact want to terminate the pregnancy, they went to a clinic in Memphis, Tennessee. There, AJ found herself threatened with arrest for feticide for “coercing” her daughter to have an abortion. While there was no substance to this charge, the whole episode frightened a teen and her mom and further delayed her abortion. There are several layers of “punishment” here, including frightening a young woman with lies, tricking her into signing a bogus legal document, seeking to get her to delay the abortion until it was too late, and then threatening to arrest her mother.

There are innumerable other ways in which the anti-choice movement is actively punishing women, by, for example, supporting monitoring and harassment of women outside clinics and hospitals, making immigrant women fear arrest, and denying women access to abortion for severe fetal and developmental anomalies while slashing state funding of support for children who are severely disabled.

I could go on. The fact that these laws and policies are passed and employed throughout the country, that they  infantalize, criminalize, and otherwise treat women as children without agency is part of an overall agenda aimed at punishing women and is becoming deeply entrenched in the U.S. legal system as a direct result of the advocacy of anti-choice groups.

The anti-choice movement is built on lies. And those lies continue to be perpetuated both by its leaders, and by a media unable, unwilling, or too self-absorbed and preoccuppied with access to politicians to actually understand and report on what is happening throughout the country.

News Abortion

Missouri GOP Legislator: Halt Student Research on Abortion Care

Jenn Stanley

Lindsay Ruhr, a graduate student at the University of Missouri, says she will continue her research on the effect of the state's 72-hour forced waiting period for abortions, despite a state senator's pushback.

A University of Missouri doctoral student is defying an anti-choice legislator by continuing her research on the effects of the state’s newly enacted 72-hour forced waiting period for abortions.

The student, Lindsay Ruhr, told Al Jazeera that she stands by her research.

“I feel that my research is objective, and that the whole point of my research is to understand how this policy affects women. Whether this policy is having a harmful or beneficial effect, we don’t know,” Ruhr said.

Her dissertation focuses on why some women are signing consent forms to have an abortion but not coming back to receive abortion care after the state’s 72-hour forced waiting period. Missouri, with a legislature dominated by Republicans, is one of five states to require a 72-hour waiting period before an abortion. Three of those five, including Missouri, require that a woman seeking an abortion must undergo in-person counseling at least 72 hours in advance of the procedure, meaning she must make a preliminary visit to the clinic.

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The controversy surrounding Ruhr’s research started last month, when state Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R-Columbia) sent an October 30 letter to the university’s chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin, saying that Ruhr’s research seemed like a “marketing aid for Planned Parenthood,” and pointing to the school’s recent disputes with the health-care provider. Pressure from GOP lawmakers for the the university to sever its relationship with Planned Parenthood had been mounting for months.

The University of Missouri this fall canceled contracts with Planned Parenthood, ending a 26-year relationship with the organization that had allowed medical and nursing students to complete clinical hours at Planned Parenthood-affiliated facilities. Shortly afterward, the university succumbed to pressure from the state’s Republican legislators and discontinued admitting privileges for a physician who in July allowed the Planned Parenthood clinic in Columbia, Missouri to be licensed by the state to resume abortions.

About Ruhr’s research, Schaefer wrote, “This is a concerning revelation considering the University’s recent troubling connections to Planned Parenthood.”

“It is difficult to understand how a research study approved by the University, conducted by a University student, and overseen by the Director of the School of Social Work at the University can be perceived as anything but an expenditure of public funds to aid Planned Parenthood … in clear violation of Missouri law,” continued Schaefer, who is a chairman on the Missouri state senate’s interim Committee on the Sanctity of Life. 

In the letter, which is posted on the state senator’s Facebook page, Schaefer requests the following documents to determine if and how state funds are being used in Ruhr’s research:

  • The complete research study protocol for IRB project number 200068
  • Any communication in the possession of the Institutional Review Board or any other entity, employee, or agent of the University regarding this study
  • Any documents, correspondence, or communications in the possession of the University or its agents or employees regarding any funds used or to be used for this study.

Schaefer asked the university to provide all of the requested materials by 4 p.m on Friday, November 6. Mary Jenkins, a representative for the university, told Al Jazeera that they are still in the process of gathering the documents. 

In a statement, Laura McQuade, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, accused Schaefer of trying to advance his career at the expense of the university.

“While it is hardly surprising that Senator Schaefer continues to attack the University of Missouri, it is disappointing that the Senator continues using taxpayer funds for political grandstanding,” McQuade said in her statement. “We call on Chancellor Loftin to remain stalwart in the face of political interference with academic freedom.”