Global Gag Leaves Blood on Our Hands

For Labor, the problem seems grim. Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith can either follow the lead of the Obama administration in lifting Australia’s version of the global gag rule, or ensure we remain the only country in the world that limits its foreign aid in this way.

What is the global gag? In Australia, they are policy guidelines instituted by the Howard Government in exchange for anti-choice Senator Brian Harradine’s vote to partially privatize Telstra, that deny development aid monies to organizations that offer women full and honest advice about all forms of contraception and abortion, or access to safe services.

If Smith lifts the gag (and he can do so administratively, no new legislation is required) he puts Labor’s own conservative Christian members off side, and alienates Family First Senator Stephen Fielding, who believes that his opposition faith-based opposition to safe abortion and most modern contraception is a sound basis for denying women in developing countries information about, and access to such services, even when they are legal.

If the Minister keeps the gag tight, he makes you and I-taxpayers whose funds are being diverted from legitimate family planning programs to church-approved ones that teach abstinence and “natural” family planning methods proven not to work-complicit in the suffering and death of women in the developing world. Suffering and death caused by continual forced pregnancies, and the horrific consequences of unsafe abortion, including sterility and the orphaning of children through the deaths of their mothers.

An estimated 19 million unsafe abortions are carried out each year in developing countries. According to UNICEF, unsafe self-inflicted methods include the consumption of detergents, strong tea, alcohol mixes and malaria tablets, as well as the insertion of knitting needles, sharpened reeds and clothes hangers. Unqualified providers also carry out procedures, usually in unregulated and unsanitary conditions.

The result? 68,000 women die each year from unsafe abortion, with hundreds of thousands more are injured or maimed. \ According to IPAS, an international organization dedicated to preventing abortion-related deaths, more than 500,000 women have died from unsafe abortions during the eight years of the last Bush administration, which re-imposed the gag the moment it took office.

The gag rule puts blood on our hands.

Deaths from unsafe abortion are entirely preventable, but they cannot be prevented if the 200 million women the United Nations estimates want to delay or avoid pregnancy are denied access to comprehensive information about pregnancy prevention, and access to contraception and safe abortion. They can be prevented, according to Shalini Nataraj of the Global Fund for Women, with funding for holistic, culturally appropriate and realistic reproductive health programs that tell women the whole truth about their options, and offer them modern medical help to implement their choices.

So which way will Smith jump? The truth is, no one knows. He has been “considering” the issue since the Parliamentary Group on Population and Development delivered a comprehensive report recommending the ban be lifted more than a year ago. To those keen for a decision to be made sooner rather than later, he had this to say. “We’ll do it in our own time. We’re not going to be driven by the decision that President Obama has made.”

But with unsafe abortion causing 13 percent of all maternal deaths worldwide, many in our region, I’d say the matter is urgent.

If you agree, you might want to give Smith’s office a call, or send an email, to let him know it’s time.

Publication history

Global Gag Leaves Blood on Our Hands  Sun-Herald (Sydney)