Harradine’s poverty legacy continues

Sue Dunlevy writes an excellent column today on the legacy of Senator Brian Harradine, who held the balance of power in the Australian Senate for long enough to drag our foreign aid policy into a position whereby, Dunlevy argues, we actively perpetuate poverty through being forbidden to provide family planning services as part of foreign aid programs.

Harradine left parliament in 2004 and the Howard Government now controls the Senate in its own right, but Harradine’s legacy lives on. A pity that can’t be said for scores of women worldwide, some 186 of whom die every day – according to one estimate – from unsafe abortions.

Edited to add: I missed the story last week whereby Harradine has denounced plans to lift the Harradine Amendment on funding that promotes family planning to alleviate poverty:

“Any attempts by members of the House of Representatives – (Mal) Washer and (Warren) Entsch – to allow scarce foreign aid funds to be used to, quote promote abortion as a method of family planning, should be condemned,” Mr Harradine told AAP.

More on the Washer/Entsch movement to lift the Harradine Amendment [here].

Dunlevy’s column points to her own family history of women relatives mired in poverty through having too many mouths to feed, and goes on to note

Being able to control our fertility is what has made the feminist revolution possible.

But in hundreds of countries around the world today, still millions of women are enslaved, like my great aunts, by their fertility.

They don’t have access to the contraception which would stop them getting pregnant in the first place.

And when their abject poverty leads them to abort the unwanted babies they can’t support, 13 per cent of them will end up dead.

Aid agencies from the World Health Organisation to the UN now recognise that birth control is one of the primary solutions to world poverty.

As policy currently stands, we are saying to the poor people of our region that we don’t care about promoting a blatant double standard in our foreign policy:

We’re saying that it’s okay for Australian women to have safe contraception and abortions, but poor people don’t deserve the same rights.

At the same time as the silent Harradine legacy ends up promoting continued poverty for poor families outside Australia, his legacy also promotes unnecessary surgical intervention for women inside Australia who wish to end pregnancies safely. Despite the law passed last year that theoretically enabled the provision of the drug preparation RU-486 for medical termination of pregnancy through the removal of the Harradine Amendment, there are still only two doctors in Australia, both in Cairns, licensed to prescribe the drug, and only under very restrictive circumstances. An anonymous GP wrote in Crikey! on Monday:

Applications have been returned to four other practitioners who sought approval as ‘Authorised Prescribers’ of the drug – de Costa’s category, which limits her to using it for women with “life-threatening or otherwise serious” medical conditions that would be worsened by continuing a pregnancy. In each case, the TGA has asked for further information before considering the application.

A peek into Hansard shows that in the past year the TGA has been under close scrutiny from Senate Estimates Committee member Guy Barnett, the ‘pro-life’ senator from Tasmania who headed the original Senate inquiry into RU-486 — which may explain the TGA’s hesitation.

Strangely, no Australian-based drug company has yet shown any interest in applying to manufacture or market the drug, now out of patent. Drug companies, normally not backwards about coming forward in pursuit of new markets, are tripping over their feet to distance themselves from RU-486. Could rumours in the industry of heavy pressure from the federal Department of Health, under Minister Tony Abbott, not to involve themselves in making the drug available here, be true?

New Zealand solved this problem when five doctors founded a not-for-profit company, Istar, to import the drug there. RU-486 is steadily gaining ground across the Tasman. This may turn out to be the way to go for Australia, too.

That Australian women would welcome the drug is shown by the large number of requests flooding in to the Cairns docs – estimated at 12-15 each week from across the country.

How many other women would request the drug if they knew they could have it prescribed locally? How many women ask their local GPs and just give up on the idea when told that it can only be prescribed in Cairns? Presumably most of the women actually making the call to Cairns are women who could afford the time and expense of travelling there for the required consultation: if you can’t afford to fly to Cairns then it makes sense to look at surgical options instead even if in an ideal situation a medical termination would be your preferred choice.

Harradine thought and probably still does think of himself as a genuinely good-willed man, strongly adhering to moral principles determined by his faith in the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet the results of his political agitation for the rights of the unborn over the rights of the already living have caused direct suffering to many people living in direst poverty, as well as increasing the medical danger to women wishing to terminate pregnancies in this country. The effects on other groups, especially our indigenous peoples, of Harradine trading away his support for their aims in return for legislation restricting reproductive choices should not be forgotten either.

Harradine knew that the result of his political demands would be more people living in poverty and despair and subject to higher levels of physical harm – he knew this because these are trivially obvious and inevitable consequences of the laws he had passed, and he was told this by relevant experts each time he agitated for his morality-driven agenda.

One saying goes “all it takes for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing”. I can’t quite come up with a pithy equivalent for good people doing actively harmful things in the name of high morals, but such a saying needs to exist.

Categories: culture wars, health, law & order, medicine, Politics

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