February 7, 2009
The Canberra Times

Time to undo the petty deal that’s destroying women’s lives

What woman would shove a dirty stick up her vagina, furiously jab at her insides and try to scrape out the walls of her womb? A promiscuous woman? A bad woman? A lapsed Christian, perhaps?

The answer, to this real-life scenario, is none of the above. The woman who did this was simply a desperate woman. An uneducated, poor woman, who had managed to smuggle herself and her four little children across the border of Burma and into Thailand.

By the time she staggered into a hospital in Mae Sot, the infection in her belly was so bad the doctors there thought she’d die. In a hideous attempt to rid herself of yet another pregnancy, the woman had jabbed so hard at her internal organs the stick had perforated her buttocks.

If it makes you sick to read this, imagine what it’s like for the medical staff who have to deal with it. Jane Singleton doesn’t need to imagine – she was there. Singleton is the CEO of the Australian Reproductive Health Alliance, and a chief advocate for lifting the ban that prevents Australian aid money being used for abortion services or training. How can people say that this woman and those like her do not have the right to a safe abortion?

Now that Barack Obama has lifted a similar ban in the US, just days after he took office, Australia is on its own. We now have the shameful distinction of being the only nation left that has a ban on aid money being used for the full range of family planning services, including safe abortions.

Recipients of Australian aid are not even allowed to educate women about abortion. Put crudely, if a terrified and desperate woman threatens to use a stick to rip her insides out, simply because she can’t feed another hungry mouth, medicos funded by Australia can’t offer her an alternative.

Once she’s done the deed and is bleeding to death, then they can step in and offer medical support. Which is useful if she lives. Often she doesn’t.

In our Asia-Pacific region, a whopping 13 per cent of maternal deaths are due to botched and unsafe abortions. On top of that, hundreds of thousands of women every year ruin their lives by resorting to dreadful practices, through either desperation or ignorance. Some are left disfigured, disabled and unable to function, which affects their families and has economic implications for their communities.

In Vietnam, for example, where abortion is legal and provided by the Government, some poorer women, particularly in remote areas, still use dangerous chemicals, intense massage, or cheap over-the-counter Chinese pills to try to abort unwanted pregnancies. Despite the obvious need, Australian aid to Vietnam cannot be used to help the Government to improve and modernise its services, or even run an education campaign.

A strict ban on Australia helping our neighbours provide safer options is both cruel and inhumane. Particularly when, here in Australia, all women have access to the most sophisticated abortion services.

Why do we think uneducated, poorer, needy women in our region deserve so much less than we do? And how odd, that while Australia is exceptionally generous in handing out aid, funding for family planning in general – such as providing contraceptives and reproductive health information and training – has dived by 84 per cent since 1996.

The double standard and hypocrisy at play here are bad enough. But the politics behind it is even worse.

The ban on aid being used for abortion services was put in place by the Howard government. It was to appease the Independent senator Brian Harradine, a staunch anti- abortionist and avowed Christian. At the time the government was desperate for Harradine’s vote on the sale of Telstra.

When Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister, and Stephen Smith Foreign Minister, it was reasonable to expect the draconian conditions on how aid money can be used when it comes to family planning would be lifted. After all, ending the ban doesn’t require any legislation or parliamentary debate. It just requires a stroke of the minister’s pen. But over a year into the Government’s first term, it seems that pen has no ink.

So what’s the hold-up? Smith has refused to utter anything about the matter, instead referring the issue to a review in the middle of last year. That review is over and still he is silent. So too the PM.

There is no doubt abortion is a vexed and divisive issue. But we have already had this debate in Australia. After decades of argument we have come to an uneasy truce. The community has had to accept the reality that denying women access to safe abortions won’t stop abortions happening; nor stop unwanted pregnancies occurring.

While both Rudd and Smith are practising Christians, it’s too simple to assume an ethical objection to abortion is the problem. After all, both men voted back in 2006 to lift the ban on the abortion drug RU486. And, although he flaunts his Christianity, Rudd has insisted his religious views will not dictate policy. But that hasn’t stopped others from using the force of the Christian right to barter both seats and votes.

Right now Family First Senator Steve Fielding, a fierce anti- abortionist, is key to the Government getting its legislation through the Senate. Naturally, he’s one of their new best friends. But friendship at what cost?

So far, the Australian Christian Lobby, which is running a slick internet campaign to keep this aid ban in force, has succeeded in scaring the weak and fearful. But surely, at some point, those using this issue as a political bargaining chip must face up to the truth of what they’re trading: it’s not just votes, but real women’s lives.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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