Can Obama Change the Lives of Women in East Timor?

Ramona Vijeyarasa

The repeal of the global gag rule does not only means that hundreds of thousands of women around the globe who may no longer need to seek an unsafe abortion as a means of last resort, risking their health and lives to do so.

Much faith has been invested
in President Obama from women’s groups, and Obama’s repeal of the
global gag is indeed a win for those who are pro-choice. However, we
should not narrowly conceive what this momentous decision means for
women’s health and lives around the globe. It is not simply that foreign
organizations who were previously prevented can now provide legal abortions
and abortion advice. It is also about the hundreds of thousands of women
around the globe who may no longer need to seek an unsafe abortion as
a means of last resort, risking their health and lives to do so. 

The choice of Hillary Clinton
as Secretary of State also raises hope about the benefits to the global
south of President Obama’s entire administration. According to the United Nations Population Fund, the $34 million funding cut for family
planning under the Bush administration could have prevented 2 million
unwanted pregnancies; nearly 800,000 induced abortions; 4,700 maternal
deaths; nearly 60,000 cases of serious maternal illness; and over 77,000
infant and child deaths in one year, let alone in the seven years that
the funds were blocked. Recognizing these harms, President Obama has
resumed this funding. Clinton, reflecting on a statement she made at Beijing
in 1995, added, "Rather than limiting women’s ability to receive reproductive
health services, we should be supporting programs that help women and
their partners make decisions to ensure their health and the health
of their families."

According to the World Health Organization, of the 45 million abortions that
take place worldwide every year, 19 million are performed under unsafe
conditions, causing at least 68,000 deaths. Several months ago I advocated
that the right of a woman
to survive pregnancy is a human right
The difference in the experiences of women in the global south and north
are stark. In the Asia region alone, unsafe abortion contributes to 19 per cent of maternal deaths. A woman in the global south is at
least 100 times more likely to die of an unsafe abortion than a woman
in the global north, a statistic that will hopefully change over time
as NGOs with the repeal of the global gag rule.  

Chares Darwin University’s
researcher, Dr Suzanne Belton, has recently completed the first study
on unwanted pregnancy in East Timor: Maternal
Mortality, Unplanned Pregnancy and Unsafe Abortion in Timor-Leste: A
Situational Analysis
A research associate with CDU’s Graduate School for Health Practice,
Dr Belton’s research shows maternal deaths in East Timor continued
to be very high. The research, which was commissioned by UNFPA, shows
that a startling forty
per cent
of all
emergency obstetric care involves managing and treating complications
from early pregnancy losses.  

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A key problem in East Timor
is the reluctance shown by doctors and midwives when it comes to speaking
with women about induced abortions. Last November, the Ministry of Justice
circulated the latest draft of the Timorese
Penal Code
, which
would decriminalize abortion in certain cases, including for the physical
or mental health of the mother. However, the current law remains complex
and health professionals are often influenced by both the Timorese Government
and Catholic Church

who do not endorse abortion. 

At the start of the Obama administration,
five former directors of USAID’s Population and Reproductive Health Program
came together in a report released in January 2009 on family planning funding, Making the Case
for U.S. International Family Planning Assistance
. The report calls on the Obama administration
to act and restore the US’ position as a leader in global family planning.
The report also hopes to act as a wake-up call for other governments
and donors to address the world’s unmet need for family planning,
advocating that it is not just a matter of reducing unintended pregnancies
and saving millions of lives, but also of making progress toward anti-poverty
and development goals.  

In fact, Australia, East Timor’s
near neighbor, has been said to follow
the lead
of the
US on the issue of family planning, with Australia’s funding contributions
having drastically
over the
past 10 years. Funds for family planning in 2005 were around two-thirds of their 1996 level and in the 2006-2007 budget accounted for only 0.07 percent of total aid. With Australia’s
ban on using Australian aid funds for activities that involve abortion training or services still in place, the call has already been made for Australia’s
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to follow President Obama’s lead and increase funding for sexual and reproductive health in the region. Having
promised "a
fresh conversation on family planning
it seems that these first steps of the Obama Presidency will indeed
positively impact the lives of women as far away as East Timor. 

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