In the News 2008

Aid Groups Respond to Abortion Funding


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ELEANOR HALL: Australian aid agencies are torn along religious lines over the Federal Government’s proposal to lift a 12-year ban on foreign aid funding for abortion services in developing countries.

Australia’s Christian aid groups are expressing concern about the move but other aid organisations say there’s enormous demand for abortion services and changing the policy is well overdue.

The Federal Opposition says the government shouldn’t though review the aid program because Australia hasn’t been asked to change anything.

Emily Bourke has our report.

EMILY BOURKE: The possibility of the Australian Government’s aid money being used to fund abortions in developing countries was always going to ignite a strong response.

The CEO of Catholic Health Australia is Martin Laverty.

MARTIN LAVERTY: We see no need for a change in the current arrangements at the moment and we will be putting that case very firmly. I mean our aid program serves us very well and it is something that all Australians are proud of.

We are a very practical nation. We ensure that our money goes to the urgent priorities that happen at times of crisis. There is no need to change those arrangements that have served us well and we will be making that case to the Foreign Affairs Minister and to the Labor caucus very forcefully.

That ultimately what this discussion is about is whether or not we value the lives of unborn children and I think that there is a very real case for continuing the arrangements that were put in place some 10 or 11 years ago.

EMILY BOURKE: But aid organisations working in developing countries have a different view.

Julie Mundy is from Marie Stopes International which provides sexual and reproductive healthcare services, including abortions, in almost 40 countries.

JULIE MUNDY: It is an interesting thing because if a woman wants access to a safe abortion in Australia, she is able to access that under the Medicare scheme. I think it is quite a arrogant stance to assume that what is good for Australians isn’t necessarily good for women overseas.

EMILY BOURKE: Senator Ron Boswell has said that Australia hasn’t been asked to change anything. What are your thoughts on that? Is there a significant demand?

JULIE MUNDY: Well, I think there is very clearly a significant demand because a number of donor agencies including the British and the Dutch and the Scandinavians are funding safe abortion initiatives.

EMILY BOURKE: So if women are able to go elsewhere, to look to other nations who are supporting abortion services in developing countries, why the need for Australia to change?

JULIE MUNDY: Because the funding is very limited in terms of meeting the demand. There is an international fund which has been set up by a consortium of governments called the Safe Abortion Action Fund which is administered by the International Planned Parenthood Federation and it was desperately oversubscribed in the first call.

You know, I believe that something like only 30 per cent of the proposals were actually funded so the demand is actually huge.

EMILY BOURKE: Jane Singleton from the Australian Reproductive Health Alliance says a review is well overdue.

JANE SINGLETON: 525,600 women die a year in childbirth or from related complications. When those women die, their children have a much shorter life expectancy than other children. UN figures estimate that children whose mothers die, are three to 10 times more likely to die within two years than others and girls then suffer particularly because they have to drop out of school to look after younger siblings.

So the issue for women and families who want access to family planning, who want to be able to space their children, should be able to make that choice.

Perhaps in Australia we don’t realise what it is like in the rest of the world. 99 per cent of all maternal deaths happen in developing countries and in Australia we, who are relatively privileged, I believe have a duty to try and lessen those figures.

EMILY BOURKE: The World Today sought comment from the Australian Council for International Development, the National Council of Churches, and aid organisation Anglicord. None would be drawn on the topic but Jon O’Brien is from the Washington-based organisation Catholics for Choice predicts lifting the ban will be popular.

JON O’BRIEN: I notice that National Senator Ron Boswell talked about a Christian backlash to this change if it actually happens. I hope Ron is not betting his retirement savings on that one because what you will find around the world is that people of faith, even if they wouldn’t choose abortions for themselves, understand that from a social justice perspective, that giving women the right to choose matters.

So Catholics from Poland to the Philippines to Perth do get it and do understand that women face very difficult circumstances – especially in developing poor countries.

Catholics in the pews get it. It’s the Bishops that don’t get it and politicians need to be listening to Catholic voters. Catholic voters will be with them if they make this change for poor women around the world.

ELEANOR HALL: That is Jon O’Brien from the Washington-based organisation Catholics for Choice ending Emily Bourke’s report.

This program originally aired on 4 June 2008 on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Catholics for Choice