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.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

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

  1. Desmond Carroll

    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

    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

    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

    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

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

  6. Kevin Herbert

    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

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

  8. sauron256

    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

    Glad someone finally said it.

  10. ruth elder

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

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