Australia had its own “global gag rule” against foreign abortion funding until 2009

Still fighting.
Still fighting.
Image: EPA/Dan Peled
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

US president Donald Trump recently reinstated the so-called “global gag rule,” which withholds US foreign aid money to NGOs providing abortions and related services around the world. It wasn’t so long ago that Australia had a similar policy.

In 1996, the conservative prime minister John Howard implemented a ban on AusAID from funding abortion-related activities, as a result of a political deal struck with independent Catholic senator Brian Harradine. Pressure to lift that ban built in 2009, influenced by a newly elected Barack Obama repealing the US gag rule and leaving Australia as the only country to explicitly limit overseas aid in such a way. The Australian Reproductive Health Alliance said in 2009 that maternal death rates in neighboring Papua New Guinea had increased over 56% in the previous years.

Prime minister Kevin Rudd of the Labor party overturned the 13-year ban that year. But abortion and other gender issues have remained contentious in Australian politics. In 2013, prime minister Julia Gillard raised the specter that abortion rights could once again be in play thanks to the anti-abortion views of a potential king-making senator, ahead of a general election.

“We don’t want to live in an Australia where abortion again becomes the political plaything of men who think they know better,” said Gillard. Her opponents accused her of politicizing gender to rally support ahead of a leadership contest. Then deputy opposition leader Julie Bishop, now Australia’s foreign minister, said Gillard’s focus on abortion was “offensive” and a ploy to “scare women” into voting against the opposition Liberal-Conservative Coalition.

Currently abortion laws in Australia vary state to state, and abortion is only fully legal in the Australian Capital Territory. Abortion is a crime in New South Wales and Queensland unless the pregnancy is deemed a threat to the mother’s health.

As Trump repeals American funding for reproductive rights around the world, Australia’s Labor politicians, now back in the opposition, are raising the matter once again to their government. Today (Jan. 25), Tanya Plibersek, deputy leader of the opposition, and senator Claire Moore, shadow minister for international development and the Pacific, released a joint statement calling for prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s government to put pressure on the Trump administration to rethink its policy.

“[L]abor calls on the Turnbull government to lobby for the repeal of this damaging and dangerous policy and immediately rule out any move to reinstate the Howard-era restrictions on Australian aid for reproductive health services,” said the statement.

A spokesperson for foreign minister Bishop said that the Australian government “remains committed to the protection and promotion of sexual and reproductive health rights on our foreign policy and aid program… Access to sexual and reproductive health, particularly family planning, remains critical to women’s empowerment, improving gender equality and reducing maternal and child mortality.”