Standing up for Canberra

Global Gag Rule

As a former diplomat, I do not normally comment on matters internal to a particular country, but I felt compelled to do so today when I saw the motion that was put up by the member for Fenner. I commend him for putting this motion up because it is an issue that I know many Canberrans feel very strongly about, many Canberra women feel very strongly about, so I felt compelled to speak on this matter today. It is a matter I feel very strongly about too. I commend the member for Fenner for putting the motion forward.

I feel very strongly about this motion because the bulk ignorance of this global gag rule, or the Mexico City policy, which was signed off with such fanfare, with such sense of urgency in an all-male signing ceremony, is absolutely breathtaking. It is regressive and it is life-threatening. Women in developing countries will pay the price for this policy. They will pay with their health, they will pay with their children's health and with their babies' health. They will pay with their lack of opportunity, their lack of education and their lack of choice, and some will pay with their lives.

The Mexico City policy, re-enacted on President Trump's first day in office—the sense of urgency on this was just breathtaking—demands that all non-US NGOs who receive US aid cannot perform, nor actively promote, abortion. NGOs will forfeit all US aid if they so much as tell a woman that abortion is a legal option for them or refer them to a provider or advocate for abortion rights.

All the medical evidence is clear. If you take safe abortion services out of the reproductive healthcare package, it exposes women to risk—significant risk; sometimes a risk to their lives. Every year 21.6 million women are so desperate to end their pregnancy that they put their lives on the line by risking an unsafe abortion, and 18.5 million of those 21.6 million women are from developing countries. Forty-seven thousand of them die from complications through unsafe abortions and millions more are left with the life-altering injuries that you get from having an unsafe abortion—an abortion that is done in often putrid conditions by someone who does not know what they are doing. We have all read stories about the impact of unsafe abortions saying that, if you do not die in the process, essentially you can have your reproductive ability significantly compromised, if not ended.

Deaths due to unsafe abortion remain close to 13 per cent of all maternal deaths. This policy will not just stop women having abortions; it will also force them to have unsafe ones, because, as Marjorie Newman-Williams from Marie Stopes International says, attempts to stop abortion through restrictive laws or by withholding family planning aid will never work because they do not eliminate women's need for abortion. This policy only exacerbates the already significant challenge of ensuring that people in the developing world who want to time and space their children can obtain the contraception they need to do so. And therein lies the rub with this policy: it not only targets the abortion; it also targets family planning services.

As we have heard from my colleagues, USAID is currently the world's largest bilateral donor in family planning and, as a result, has transformed the lives of women and girls in developing countries by expanding access to voluntary contraception. Take those billions out of the system and it is going to have a devastating impact on so many lives.

Tragically, the policy will have the opposite effect to the one intended. A 2011 study found that abortion rates in sub-Saharan African countries actually increased while the Mexico City policy was in force under President Bush.

Three hundred thousand women die from pregnancy or childbirth related complications each year, leaving about one million children motherless—children that are more likely to die within one to two years of their mother's death. And, for every woman who dies in childbirth, dozens more suffer injury, infection or disease. The policy denies women the right to make choices that could improve their living conditions, from the girl who could have avoided an unwanted pregnancy and continued her education to the mother of five who could have averted a life-threatening risk of an unsafe abortion. The impact of this policy will be catastrophic, and it is women in developing countries who will pay the price.

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