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The lethal legacy of Brian Harradine: his long war on women’s rights

While former Tasmanian senator Brian Harradine’s passing is mourned and his life celebrated, we should remember his impact on the lives of women of developing countries.

Now that former Tasmanian senator Brian Harradine has been farewelled with a state funeral in Hobart, honoured by past and current politicians, it is an appropriate time to detail his impact on the lives of women in developing countries.

As an ardent anti-choice campaigner, Harradine did everything he could in his 30 years in the Senate to undermine women’s right to safe abortion. In particular, he used his role as a balance-of-power senator to negotiate deals to undermine access to abortion with both the Keating and Howard governments. Tony Abbott’s ministerial ban on medical abortion pill RU486 had its genesis in a deal between the Howard government and Harradine for his support on the sale of Telstra. But far more damaging was another aspect of the Telstra deal: his successful attempt to stop Australian aid being directed toward family planning of any kind.

The “Family Planning Guidelines” agreed between Harradine and the Howard government in 1996, modelled on similar American guidelines that were overturned by the Obama administration, banned AusAID from funding organisations working in developing countries that provided any training, education or information about abortion. The International Women’s Development Agency estimates AusAID’s funding for family planning fell by 84% during the period in which the Family Planning Guidelines operated.

No access to abortion and unsafe abortions are a major preventable cause of death and injury to women worldwide, particularly in developing countries. In 2006, a World Health Organization paper estimated that 68,000 women died from unsafe abortions worldwide every year; millions more are left permanently injured or ill, and complications from unsafe abortions consume a substantial proportion of obstetrics and gynaecological funding in some developing countries. According to the WHO, legalising abortion is not sufficient to stop the damage caused by unsafe abortions. Safe abortion must be accessible, and women must know about it. But legalising abortion does not increase “demand”: rather, it helps shifts clandestine, unsafe abortions to safer ones. The WHO paper concluded:

Although the ethical debate over abortion will continue, the public-health record is clear and incontrovertible: access to safe, legal abortion on request improves health.”

Labor overturned the guidelines in 2009: despite supporting them, then-prime minister Kevin Rudd handed the issue to a caucus subcommittee, which recommended they be removed, though the Coalition opposed it. The Parliamentary Group on Population and Development, under Liberal MP Mal Washer and Labor’s Claire Moore, had worked hard for the removal. Washer called the guidelines “ridiculous and repugnant”:

… we’re saying in these guidelines that if you go and have an illegal abortion where there is a 13 per cent chance of death on average and you happen to survive, we’re happy to give you counselling. Well, that’s good for those who didn’t die but for the 13 per cent, I think counselling dead people is pretty difficult.”

Under the guidelines, Australia helped maintain the conditions in which hundreds of thousands of women in aid recipient countries died from an entirely preventable problem. We don’t know most their names; their lives weren’t celebrated with a state funeral or honoured with tributes from politicians. But we know Harradine, with the complicity of the Howard government, played a role in their deaths because of those guidelines. And we can’t even be sure another government won’t do a deal with another anti-choice zealot, Senator John Madigan, to restore them.

For people in public life, it’s an important achievement to be able to say that they left the world a better place than they found it. With Brian Harradine’s passing, we should remember that his time in public life in Australia helped maintain death, misery and suffering for some of the must vulnerable people in the world.

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  • 1
    Desmond Carroll
    Posted Thursday, 24 April 2014 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Attention Mr Beecher! Give this young man a bonus.

    He continues to gladden the heart of this contentedly ageing retired journo.

    Fraternal congratulation to young Bernard.

  • 2
    johnd
    Posted Thursday, 24 April 2014 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    Thank god. I get so tired of how politicians suddenly turn selfless paragons of public good, fighting for the undog, etc when they die.
    Harradine was anything but, using his power not to get what his electorate wanted, but what he wanted in line with his misguided view of the word.
    Let’s stop praising in death politicians who didn’t deserve such praise in life.

  • 3
    Djbekka
    Posted Thursday, 24 April 2014 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Ah folks, Yes Harradine was a scourge for women who wanted more ‘mother of many’ on their tombstones. But remember that WA’s own Joe Bullock is from a similar position in the ALP, pre selected in 2013 not the 1950s. Madigan will not be alone in the new Senate. Can the ALP reform itself? Can you see the pigs flying yet?

  • 4
    leon knight
    Posted Thursday, 24 April 2014 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    Great work Bernard - the misery and suffering these zealots cause in the name of their religion needs to be exposed for the real wickedness that it is.
    How these religious ratbags keep working their way into positions of political power baffles me, why doesn’t our constitution prevent them bringing their fruit-loop ideas to work?

  • 5
    sparky
    Posted Thursday, 24 April 2014 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Bernard, the obits I glanced at were too full of praise for this man.

  • 6
    Kevin Herbert
    Posted Thursday, 24 April 2014 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    I knew Harradine when he was with the Tasmanian Trades & Labor Council in Hobart in the early 70’s. Save for his dress, he had the patrician demeanour of a devout Catholic priest.

    He thouyght he was after all doing God’s work…sad really, cos his intentions were pure, but he was a religious zealot who as Bernard Keane points out did untold harm to defenceless women around the globe….muck like religious zealots around the globe.

  • 7
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 24 April 2014 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Des - every now 7 then BK does come up with the goods,. When not writing job applications to the Mudorc or IPA.

  • 8
    sauron256
    Posted Thursday, 24 April 2014 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    I was wondering if I should renew my Crikey sub. This article has made my mind up… bye bye Crikey, won’t miss you.

  • 9
    Simon de Little
    Posted Thursday, 24 April 2014 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    Glad someone finally said it.

  • 10
    ruth elder
    Posted Friday, 25 April 2014 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the reminder of the misery created by this selfish, rigid moraliser.

  • 11
    Kevin Herbert
    Posted Friday, 25 April 2014 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    sauron 256:

    bye bye….I expect no-one will miss you

  • 12
    PaulM
    Posted Friday, 25 April 2014 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    At least, on the basis of this, Brian Haradine can’t be accused of being a populist, which seems to be the criticsims most often hurled at politicians these days. We should also recognise there were times when Harradine’s principles and actions were an irritant to Governments. Like the time he opposed the Howard government’s deportation to China of an eight-months pregnant woman. The woman already had one child,and the pregnancy was aborted upon her arrival in China. Th Labor Party, like the Libs/Nats, kowtowed to China on this one. This was probably one of the few times when Harradine and his fellow Tasmanian, Bob Brown, saw eye to eye on abortion.

  • 13
    MaryK
    Posted Saturday, 26 April 2014 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    When I heard that Brian Harradine had 14 children I simply thought “how irresponsible!”. Good luck to his kids and I hope they all have a great life and leave the world a better place than they entered it but, honestly. What was he thinking?! If you wish to offer up every sperm to Jesus (thanks Monty Python), then forgo your rights to modern medicine because ancient birthing patterns and modern dying patterns are just not compatible.

  • 14
    Buddy
    Posted Saturday, 26 April 2014 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    Whilst I won’t celebrate his death, nor shall I celebrate his ’ achievements ’ . I shall always remember Harradine as a man who opposed the wellbeing of women and allowed them suffer so he didn’t feel bad .

  • 15
    billie
    Posted Sunday, 27 April 2014 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for a clear analysis of the toxic effect Brain Harridine had on women’s lives

  • 16
    Daly
    Posted Sunday, 27 April 2014 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Bernard. Your writing is the main reason I subscribe to Crikey: you choose the topics that matter and write about why they matter.
    All those nameless women who died and all the women whose unwanted children kept them and their children in poverty in AusAid receiving countries for over 30 years because of the complicity of powerful men, like Howard and Harridine. That’s another generation living in poverty.
    Imagine if a woman PM or Senator told men how many children they could have and how!

  • 17
    David Anthony
    Posted Wednesday, 14 May 2014 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    Thanks Bernard for your opinion. But a fact that will never escape any of us, no matter who deeply we bury our heads in the sand, is that Abortion is never safe for the baby. And that’s globally, millions a year; and here at home, close to 100,000 aussie babies a year.

  • 18
    Kevin Herbert
    Posted Wednesday, 14 May 2014 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    David Anthony: you’re entitled to your religion based beliefs, just as I’m entitled to my beliefs in the right of a women to decide if & when she gives birth.

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