Australia’s funding of foreign abortions: compassionate or coercive?

Australia’s funding of foreign abortions: compassionate or coercive?

Australia funds foreign abortions through its long-standing partnerships with leading sexual and reproductive health organisations, including the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) and Marie Stopes International Australia (MSIA). In November 2020, an e-petition (which garnered only two signatures) requested the Australian government to “substantially increase foreign aid to reputable family planning organisations”.

In February 2021, Senator Marise Payne, who was Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Women at the time, replied explaining that Australia’s spending for the year 2019-20 had been  $78.2 million across these organisations, an increase of $13.5 million compared with the previous year. She affirmed Australia’s continued commitment “to advocate strongly in international fora for the protection and promotion of sexual and reproductive health and rights”.

The anonymous petitioner explained their advocacy for “family planning” was grounded in a belief that this was both good for women and necessary to tackle the problem of over-population:

"It has been widely recognised that family planning provides many benefits, including: improving educational outcomes for women, increasing per capita wealth, and reducing environmental harm. Given that the world is massively overpopulated, more money must be allocated to reputable family planning organisations overseas such as Marie Stopes and Population Services International. Women in developing nations must be provided with the educational tools and autonomy to make an informed decision as to whether or not they want to reproduce."

The language of “health”, “rights” and “autonomy” conjures a vision of international abortion providers as champions of the world’s most marginalised women and they certainly capitalise on this image. Claiming the moral high ground allows them to denounce anyone who threatens their funding as harming the women these organisations claim to assist. So, British MPs who voted in July to cut the UK’s foreign aid budget were declared to have “blood on their hands”. Data was produced claiming this reduction to sexual and reproductive health services would result in 2 million dangerous backstreet abortions and 7 million unintended pregnancies.

But the dishonesty of the claims that women in developing countries are simply being offered “educational tools and autonomy” and having their “health and rights” protected, becomes clear if we examine the response of abortion providers to women whose “choices” do not align with what they believe is “best” for women. 

In China, for example, IPPF worked hand-in-hand with the Chinese Communist Party to implement the “One Child Policy” – a policy responsible for hundreds of millions of forced abortions, sterilisations and untold human suffering. More recently, the state-run media China Daily, explained that their program of genocidal forced sterilisation of the Uyghur women in Xinjiang has, in fact, “emancipated” these women, securing “gender equality and reproductive health”. Uyghur women are “more confident and independent” because they are “no longer baby-making machines”.

The propagandistic nature of such proclamations might seem absurdly obvious, but are these really any different to the familiar sophistry of western abortion providers who use carefully-chosen phrases like “reproductive choice” to disguise a range of methods used to herd women in a pre-determined direction? Bernard Berelson, an American behavioural scientist and the Population Council’s fourth President, openly acknowledged the illusory nature of “choice” and the potential benefits of coercion:

“The familiar choice presented in the policy literature—that voluntarism is good and ‘coercion’ bad—is clearly simplistic. We are all of us ‘coerced’ daily by both culture and law, in countless accepted ways … the issue turns on what end is served by a coercive policy and the participatory conditions under which it is implemented.”

In Africa, abortion providers − again funded by western foreign aid − have used the softer methods of deception, bribery and financial coercion to introduce abortion services that contravene national laws and traditional African culture, marketing these as “post abortion care” or “safe motherhood” services. Obianuju Ekeocha, founder of Culture of Life Africa, has explained that traditional African culture provides no framework for regarding abortion in a positive light. Even the abortionist’s emphasis on “a woman’s right to choose” involves the imposition of western cultural values, a form of neo-colonialism. Ekeocha explains:

“[W]e are seeing astronomical amounts of money being raised by rich western philanthropists in order to “donate” to poor nations solely for the purpose of reducing the “burdensome” fertility of their women, and also there is the exponentially increasing number of well-funded foreign abortion lobbyists who are tirelessly pushing and prodding African leaders towards legalised abortion.

Instead of funding these abortion providers, and promoting a practice that carries risks of both physical and psychological harm for women (over and above the blatant coercion occurring in some places), Australia could help women in developing countries with the priorities they identify for themselves and their families.

The recent What Women Want survey of nearly 1.2 million women in 114 developing countries identified the following “Top 5 needs”: respectful and dignified care; water sanitation and hygiene; medicines and supplies; increased competent and better supported midwives and nurses; increased, full-functioning and close health facilities. At the moment, a Nigerian woman is 200 times more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth than a woman in Sweden. If Australia is serious about improving the “reproductive health” of women in developing countries, perhaps we could start there.


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