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Federal

Apr 24, 2014

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.

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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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