Australia May Lift Restrictions on Abortion-Related Aid
By Patrick Goodenough
CNSNews.com International Editor
June 04, 2008
(CNSNews.com) - The Australian government is considering lifting abortion-related restrictions on overseas development aid, drawing warnings of a possible backlash by churches.
Christian opponents of the move charge that it is being driven by a domestic ideological agenda, not as a result of requests from nations that get assistance from the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID).
The 12-year-old policy, strongly opposed by the political left and reproductive rights groups, states that AusAID funds may not be used to pay for abortion advice, training and services in developing countries. Opponents say it harms women in some of the Asia-Pacific region's poorest countries such as East Timor and Papua New Guinea, key targets of Australian aid.
Australia and the United States are believed to be the only countries to enforce such restrictions.
The U.S. "Mexico City Policy" denies aid funds to non-governmental organizations that promote or perform abortions, even if they use money from other sources to do so.
Dubbed the "global gag rule" by opponents, the policy was introduced in 1984 by the Reagan administration, rescinded by the Clinton administration, and reinstated by President Bush in 2001. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama opposes the policy, as has his rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton; Presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain supports it.
The Australian policy was introduced by the Liberal-National coalition government of former Prime Minister John Howard, at the instigation of a pro-life independent senator, Brian Harradine, who retired in 2005 after three decades in parliament.
Even before the conservative coalition was voted out of office last November, support was growing in parliament for the "Harradine guidelines" to be overturned.
In May 2007, a report by a cross-party parliamentary group on population and development said the policy was "cruel and illogical" and effectively encouraged unsafe illegal abortions.
The Howard government set the report aside in the run-up to the election, but Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's Labor government is now revisiting the issue.
Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, who has the power to lift the restrictions without any change in legislation required, has asked the Labor caucus to debate the matter and make a recommendation on whether he should do so.
Senator Ron Boswell
of the conservative National Party is spearheading the effort to keep the measure in place.
At a Senate hearing on government expenditure on Tuesday, Boswell
asked officials whether AusAID recipient countries had requested funding for services related to abortion.
"The [foreign affairs] department responded that they were not aware of any particular requests to fund abortion related activities," he said afterwards.
"Why is the Rudd government even considering funding abortion in its overseas aid programs when Australia has never done so in the past and has not been approached by other countries to do so?"
Boswell voiced concern that changing the policy could divert funds from existing programs including clean water programs and maternal and child welfare services.
He said churches and church-related aid agencies would oppose "any decision to use Australia's overseas aid programs to further the ideological aims of a pro-abortion lobby group at home."
In a radio interview Wednesday, Boswell
warned that if the policy was changed Rudd could face a backlash from Christian voters whose support he sought last year.
"He cuddled up to the churches for the last election," he said. "If he does this to them then they'll turn upon him."
Labor lawmaker Bob McMullan, who serves as parliamentary secretary for international development assistance, said the decision could not be made based on electoral considerations.
Although some Australians shared Boswell's
view on the matter, "a large bulk of people" did not feel passionately about it, while others took the opposite view, he said.
"We'll have a discussion we will make a decision and then we'll get on with it."
Among those who do share Boswell's
view is the Australian Christian Lobby, whose managing director, Jim Wallace, said the government should "reject any moves to allow a pro-abortion agenda to be incorporated into Australia's aid program."
Wallace recalled that last year's federal election campaign had for the first time seen international aid become an issue, largely due to calls from churches and Christian organizations for foreign aid levels to rise.
"Christians pushing for this increased aid would be appalled to think that some of those aid dollars might now be re-directed towards ending the life of unborn children in poor countries," he said.
The Australian Christian Lobby is also troubled by the fact that a policy change decision could be taken without a parliamentary vote. Australia's major political parties generally allow their members a free conscience vote on sensitive issues like abortion.
The Australian Reproductive Health Alliance, an organization promoting "public support for enhanced reproductive and sexual health in Australia and internationally," strongly opposes the ban and wants its lifted.
"It is our form of the Global Gag [rule] where women are denied education about a significant issue of reproductive health and the right to know how to protect themselves from injury and death," it said in a statement on its Web site.