The Australian Government recently
made a monumental decision to resume the use of its foreign aid funding
for the provision of abortion services and information. Six months of parliamentary debate, which
many activists, including myself, followed closely, culminated in this
decision to reverse the 12-year long ban. Some have attributed the reform
to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Since his election to office in 2007,
Rudd has introduced a host of positive changes for the country and world,
including signing the Kyoto Protocol less than one month after being
sworn into office, making a formal apology to the "stolen generations"
in February 2008, and proposing greater recognition of LGBT rights in
Australia by announcing reforms to the legal recognition of same-sex
However, the decision to overturn
the ban, imposed in 1996 by the previous conservative government, in
fact challenges the personal
beliefs of Prime
Minister Rudd. Rudd said he had "long-standing conservative views"
on the issue and did not support the change. Rather, after extensive
consultation with parliamentary colleagues, Foreign
Minister Stephen Smith
made the decision to lift the ban: "I was left with the very distinct
impression that the substantial, if not the overwhelming majority of
the parliamentary members of the Labor Party believed that this was
also the correct outcome."
Hanson-Young, an Australian senator from the Australian Greens, who was the youngest Australian woman
ever elected to parliament, noted how out of step Australia has been
with the international community. Although not an entirely accurate statement about the changes introduced by the Obama Administration, Hanson-Young stated: "Australia, until this morning,
was the last country who had these ridiculous, archaic, inhumane restrictions
placed on our aid funding and support. What we now see is Australia
has stepped up in line with Barack Obama, who in his very first week
as president moved to ensure that these restrictions would be lifted,"
she said. In the February Parliamentary sitting of the Australian Senate,
Senator Hanson-Young also moved for the Senate to recognize that an
estimated 34,000 mothers die in the region each year due to the lack
of maternal health care.
McMullan, Australia’s Parliamentary Secretary for Development Assistance, also recognized the potential significance
this decision will have for maternal health, "the greatest gap in
health services between the developed and developing world." Honing
in on the rights of women to decide the number and spacing of their
Singleton, chief executive officer of the Australian Reproductive Health Alliance
(ARHA), also commented
on this reform. In Singleton’s opinion, "It will have huge impacts
on hundreds of thousands of women and their families who want to make
choices about the numbers of children they have and the spacing and
it will also free up funds for family planning generally." She also
highlighted that while these restrictions have been in place, Australia’s
funding for a whole range of family planning has diminished by 84 per
cent. Foreign Minister Smith has promised to reverse this decline in
aid for family planning organizations. As part of Australia’s commitment
to advancing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and to improve
child and maternal health, the Government will also provide additional funding
of up to $15 million over four years
through UN agencies and NGOs for family planning and reproductive health
activities to help reduce maternal deaths.
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The potential for this change
to save women’s lives and guarantee women their right to health is
enormous. AusAID, the Australian Government’s Overseas Aid Program,
funds a range of countries in Asia and the Pacific, with $AUS3.7 billion worth of official
development assistance planned for 2008-2009. I have previously drawn
the spotlight on East
and expressed my hope that a change in Australia’s foreign aid funding
requirements would help stop the 68,000 unsafe abortions that unnecessarily
take place every year, risking the lives of young Timorese women. However,
women all around the region, including those from some of Australia’s
biggest recipients like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Cambodia, and the Solomon
Islands, could now have the opportunity to access legal abortions, safely,
more affordably and be armed with the necessary information to do so.
This is particularly important in South Asia. Whilst more
than half of the world’s unsafe abortions take place in Asia (10.5 million),
more than one-third of these are in South Central Asia. According to Action Canada for
Population and Development (ACPD),
in the Asia region, excluding East Asia where safe abortion is widely
accessible, one unsafe abortion occurs for every 5 live births.
In Nepal, unfortunately one
of the smaller recipients of Australian Government aid (with an estimated $AUD8.2 million foreign aid to be
received from the Australian Government in the period 2008-09), unsafe
abortion causes 20 to 27 per cent of all maternal deaths. Given that nearly a quarter
of Nepalese women give birth before the age of 18 and over 50 percent
women give birth by the age of 20, the number of young women dying is
staggering. An increase in family planning funding will help to address
the low levels of education, including reproductive health education,
limited access to health services and the higher risks of complications
that exist for these some of the younger women, whose reproductive system
may not being fully developed in light of their age.
reproductive health and rights groups have been waiting a long time
for this decision. One of the key outcomes of roundtable discussions held in 2006 on Australia’s
family planning aid was the realization that
unsafe abortion could not be left out of a comprehensive approach to
sexual and reproductive health programs in the region. Donor
money isn’t everything, but it certainly can have a huge impact on
countries that de-prioritize reproductive health. All recipients of
Australian funding can now freely use this money to arm women with the
information and services they need to make choices about their own lives,
hopefully shrinking the gap between the rights, health and choices of
women in the global north and south.