In commenting on the current guidelines that restrict AusAid from funding family planning advice, the report of the Parliamentary Group on Population and Development in 2007 was succinct:

Comprehensive sexual and reproductive health programming should be pursued in the aid program… However, Australia places restrictions on the use of aid funds in this area…these restrictions deny women the same access to reproductive health choices, education and services we give ourselves.

The group’s chair, Liberal MP Dr Mal Washer, was pithier still:

What is even more ridiculous or more repugnant is that 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.

The origins of the family planning restrictions on Australia’s foreign aid program in the previous Government’s shameless duchessing of Brian Harradine have now been well raked over. Harradine has gotten off lightly. He retains a reputation as some sort of paragon of independence and senatorial judgement.

But during the Howard years, he used his position to systematically debauch policy and inflict his own Catholic fundamentalism on Australians. He was responsible for blocking access to RU-486, demanding the imposition of the AusAid family planning guidelines, and channelling tens of millions of dollars down the drain on pork barrelling in Tasmania, all in exchange for supporting policy triumphs like the sale of Telstra.

As a consequence of the restrictions, thousands of women overseas have died from unsafe abortions (see Sue Dunlevy’s excellent article from last year for some figures). Those deaths are a direct legacy of Brian Harradine and the Howard Government’s willingness to cater to the medieval delusions of the superstitious.

Now the religious wingnuts are lining up again to try to block removal of the restrictions, which has been under consideration since early March by an ALP caucus committee. National Senator Ron Boswell, the ambling cretin from Queensland, has been warning of a reaction from Christians if the Government removes the restrictions. Sydney Labor MP John Murphy, another Federal politician unlikely to trouble the scorers in an IQ competition, has been making similar noises. The pair was behind efforts several years ago to instigate a “debate” over banning Medicare funding for abortion.

And help is on the way for them. As Michelle Grattan noted on the weekend, John Hogg, soon to become Senate President, is a forceful advocate for retention of the restrictions. Hogg is from the most appalling union in the country, the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association, run for decades by conservative Catholic Joe De Bruyn.

In what is bad news for anyone with social views from later than the thirteenth century, the SDA did well in the 2007 election. Its SA State President (and another Catholic fundamentalist) Don Farrell arrives in the Senate on 1 July, replacing Linda Kirk, who lost Farrell’s backing for daring to vote in favour of stem-cell research. Reps MPs Kate Ellis and newcomer Nick Champion are both ex-SDA and protégés of Farrell’s.

Opponents of change will also be able to count on Senator Jacinta Collins from Victoria, also from the SDA, who replaced Robert Ray and is already in the Senate following his early departure. She campaigned against stem cell research and is fiercely anti-abortion.

There’s another politician opposed to removing the restrictions – a former chairman of the Parliamentary Group on Population and Development, no less. Brendan Nelson supported the removal of restrictions on RU-486, and the ban on stem cell cloning, under the previous Government. But he doesn’t support Australian aid being used to inform women about abortion.

Gee Brendan, how about some of that Emo Man fury for Third World women who die from botched abortions?

We don’t accept the right of fundamentalists to dictate women’s reproductive rights in this country. But apparently, when it’s foreign women, poor women, women with different-coloured skin, it doesn’t matter so much, regardless of the fact that the restrictions on AusAid’s activities directly lead to the deaths of some of those women. The people who support the restrictions are tolerating and encouraging those deaths in the name of religious fundamentalism – or political expediency.

There is no excuse. Everyone involved in establishing the restrictions has blood on their hands. And so will anyone who supports their retention.

Peter Fray

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