Of the many disturbing things about Australia’s new ‘Liberal’ government, plans to cut foreign aid by $4.5 billion over the next four years must rank near the top. As shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Tanya Plibersek, highlighted in a speech to the Australian Council for International Development in late October, foreign aid is of particular importance to women and children. Ms Plibersek raised the prospect of the government’s resuming its former policy of prohibiting aid to organisations that offer family planning services. If this were to happen, it would be more than a scandal. One needs no expertise in foreign affairs to understand that a woman’s ability to control her fertility is intrinsically related to her chances of being educated, gaining employment, flourishing physically and psychologically, and breaking out of the cycle of poverty. Without access to contraception and safe abortions, most women will experience repeated pregnancies and childbirth, often from a young age. This reality is one of the major sources – perhaps the source - of women’s greater vulnerability to ill health, poverty, and homelessness.* The former ‘Harradine policy’,** is also utterly dumb. If countries like Australia want to reduce their foreign aid budget, surely one of the best ways to do this is to support programs that reduce poverty.
In constitutional terms, 'western' countries tend to think of reproductive autonomy almost exclusively in terms of abortion rights. In the United States, in particular, the issue is expressed as one of ‘choice’: whether to continue or terminate a pregnancy. However, if we contemplate the position of women in the poorest parts of the world – where foreign aid is needed – we can see how complicated the matter is, including for first world women.
First, what is at stake is much more than constitutional ‘rights’. The protected right to have an abortion comes at the end of a complex chain of factors surrounding personal growth. Education and effective health services, as well as protection from damaging traditional practices, are critical: all of these require positive governmental intervention, going well beyond the negative constitutional right to privacy, or bodily integrity, or security of the person, as the constituitonal textual sources of restraint on regulating abortions are commonly expressed. Positive support for pregnant women and their children is also essential. We shouldn’t literally throw the baby out with the bath water and imagine that governments have no legitimate interest in ensuring the protection of viable foetuses, or that the liberalisation of abortion laws is all that is needed for reproductive autonomy. In poorer parts of the world, it is obvious that girls’ and women’s ability to flourish is critically dependent on the whole spectrum of social, educational, obstetric and other health, services. This, in reality, is also the case in the west.
The language of ‘choice’ is misplaced. It represents abortion as if it were a lifestyle decision, in which an individual woman weighs up the pros and cons, the costs and the benefits, in the manner of a consumer. It individualises what is at stake, and depicts women as sole actors, detached and decontextualised. Often women have no choice. Continuing a pregnancy may in reality simply not be possible: pressure from partners, the demands of other children, the potential loss of work, and poverty, among many other factors, may make abortion the only choice. Governmental support and protection are essential if choice is to be genuine. But choice alone cannot capture what is at stake.
Whether these principles should find expression in a country’s constitution is a complex and sensitive question. Certainly, where a constitution includes the ‘right to life’ (the Irish and the Canadian, for example) this must be qualified so as not to rule out abortion. The South African constitution, which has a ‘right to life’, also includes the right ‘to make decisions concerning reproduction.’ But, even in South Africa, challenges to the liberalisation of abortion laws have shown how complicated the interplay between such provisions can be. We are reminded, too, that judicial review places decisions that have direct, physical impact on women and their lives, in the hands of individual judges. Certainly some are progressive and capable of empathy, but many are conservative and limited in their experience, perhaps also narrow in their imaginations. Giving them such power is extremely risky. It has often proven not to be in the interest of those who are affected. On balance, it is probably best to leave reproductive rights out of a constitution, but to make sure, on the other hand, that nothing in a constitution can be deployed to obstruct women’s reproductive interests.
Governments should support and fund what is needed if reproductive autonomy is to be possible. They should, of course, prioritise the poorest and most vulnerable, those for whom the bearing of a child may have genuine life or death consequences. But all women have an interest in such matters. Whether we like it or not, reproductive vulnerability remains the knife edge on which, at least for a significant part of their lives, almost all women walk.
*One graphic historical picture of the consequences of unwanted pregnancies in Australia’s own past is offered in The Baby Farmers, by Annie Cossins (Allen & Unwin 2013). The book explores the desperate 19th century practice of ‘farming’ out unwanted (usually ex-nuptial) babies to the permanent care of unregulated providers, paid to take the babies off their mothers’ hands. Neglect or abuse of these babies was often the outcome, and in the case on which Cossins focuses, it was death. What this history illustrates is not merely that such things happened in the not-so distant past on our own doorstep, but just how desperate and tragic the circumstances of women can be, on account of nothing more than their biological vulnerability.
**After its election in 1996, the former Liberal government of Prime Minister John Howard lacked a majority in the Senate. It did a deal with Tasmanian Senator Brian Harradine, a conservative Catholic, to whom special concessions were offered in return for his support. These included extra funding for Tasmanian infrastructure and a prohibition on foreign aid that supported birth control programs.