|Subject: Aid restrictions are killing the
women of East Timor
Sydney Morning Herald.
Aid restrictions are killing the women of East Timor Emily Maguire December 31, 2007
Australia's near neighbour East Timor has a birth rate of 8.5 per woman and a maternal death rate 20 times that of Australia. It is hardly an unusual case: around the world one woman dies in childbirth every minute. Another 68,000 women die every year as a result of unsafe abortion, which also leaves about 5 million women permanently injured or diseased.
These are horrifying statistics. The fact that Australia is partly responsible for them should shame and anger us all.
The AusAID family planning guidelines, instituted in 1996 by a Coalition government desperate for the support of the ultra-conservative Senator Brian Harradine, forbade any organisation that accepts Australian aid dollars from providing, recommending or even supplying information on abortion - even when to do so may save the woman's life.
Funded organisations are also restricted as to the types and methods of contraceptives they can suggest. Harradine retired in 2005 and had not held the balance of power for some years before that - but the AusAid restrictions remain.
In May the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population and Development published a paper demanding that the family planning guidelines be abolished. The report argued that worldwide access to contraception and safe pregnancy terminations would reduce maternal deaths by up to 35 per cent and child deaths by 20 per cent.
'I'm a doctor and I don't like abortion any more than [Harradine] does,' the group's chairman, the Liberal MP Mal Washer, told ABC radio at the time. "But we have got to be realistic. What Australia condones in its aid policies is that if you have an unwanted pregnancy then you do not get any help in the way of a safe termination … After you've had an illegal or unsafe termination then we'll treat you. Well that's good, if you don't die."
Preventing tens of thousands of deaths is, of course, sufficient reason to remove the ban, but there are other benefits to ensuring that women, wherever they live, have access to the full range of family planning options.
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.
Universal access to affordable, reliable contraception is a good start. However, in many strongly patriarchal cultures, women are often unable to refuse unwanted sex or insist on safer sex practices. In these cases, a drawer full of condoms and all the will in the world will not protect a woman from disease or unwanted pregnancy.
As the appalling statistics on abortion-related deaths indicate, many women will risk their lives to prevent the birth of a baby they do not want or cannot support. As the appalling death in childbirth statistics indicate, continuing with a pregnancy can mean taking the risk your new baby, and any previous children, will be left motherless.
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.
The foreign affairs minister has the power to change the AusAID conditions. There is no need for new or altered legislation and no need to take it to Parliament. When the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population and Development presented its report in May, the then foreign affairs minister, Alexander Downer, said he would "consider the recommendation with an open mind". As nothing was done and nothing more said, we can assume that he decided the lives of non-Australian women were not a pre-election priority.
Now the matter is out of Downer's hands. As the new Foreign Affairs Minister, Stephen Smith, works to get on top of his portfolio, there are no doubt a thousand matters, small and large, vying for his attention. Let's hope Smith's ministerial colleague Tanya Plibersek, who was a member of the parliamentary group, shares with him her belief that "these guidelines … have contributed to the death of women in poor countries". Let's hope Smith realises the inherited policy is morally reprehensible and easily fixed.
Although Smith has yet to comment publicly on the AusAID guidelines, his remarks during last year's RU486 debate indicate that he supports reproductive rights. "My starting point is that abortion is a matter of conscience for the individual," he said then. "I also strongly believe that as a matter of conscience we should not seek to impose any one view on anyone else."
If Smith's belief in the right of individuals to make reproductive choices extends to non-Australians, he will move to overturn these murderous restrictions immediately. And if the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, is committed to ending poverty and injustice, he will unreservedly support his Foreign Minister.
Emily Maguire is a Sydney writer whose most recent book is The Gospel According To Luke. Phillip Coorey is on leave.
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