By Anthony Barich
The Federal Government has not responded to repeated calls to meet with the Catholic Church on the future of maternal healthcare in foreign aid after Foreign Minister Stephen Smith lifted a decade-old ban on funding overseas abortion providers.
Caritas Australia chief executive Jack de Groot said that Caritas had been kept in the dark about the policy change on March 10, that saw Mr Smith, a Catholic, overturn AusAID guidelines implemented by the Howard Government in 1996, despite Prime Minister Kevin Rudd admitting he does not agree with the decision.
Mr de Groot wrote to Mr Smith the day of the announcement requesting a meeting, and faxed another letter through on March 18, but had received no response at time of writing last week, and said he is “gravely concerned” about the implications of this policy for Caritas’ ongoing work in aid and development around the world.
He said that he expected the Federal Government to lift the ban after new United States President Barack Obama enacted a similar measure upon being installed, as supporting freedom of choice to abort is part of the ALP’s policy platform; and though Mr Smith said that Australian and international NGOs will continue to be able to choose what services they deliver in line with their own philosophies and policies, the Caritas CEO is now “unsure” whether Catholic agencies overseas who refuse to conduct abortions are safe from funding restrictions.
Mr de Groot, in Perth on March 11 for the Parliament House launch of Project Compassion, warned that by not consulting the Catholic Church, one of the largest service providers in maternal health and early childhood development in countries throughout the Pacific, Africa, Latin America and Asia, the government was not ensuring the best outcome of any policy change. He now wants to work with the government to achieve Mr Smith’s stated aim of reducing abortions.
“Our principle of protecting the sanctity of human life is not met with this policy change,” Mr de Groot told The Record.
Mr Smith, the Member for Perth, said: “Avoiding terminations through family planning services and advice will continue to be the focus of Australian funded activities”, prompting Mr de Groot to respond that “if the government wants to reduce abortions, then funding abortion clinics is not the right way to go about it”.
There is no evidence that any abortion providers, in Australia or overseas, focus on avoiding terminations. Instead, they offer abortions as a form of family planning, said Peter Westmore, president of the National Civic Council, a mainly-Christian group seeking to shape public policy on cultural, family, political, economic and international issues.
The Minister said in a statement that it is a “tragedy” that there are an estimated 42 million terminations performed globally each year, and that almost half of these are estimated to be “medically unsafe”.
“Around 68,000 women die each year as a result of unsafe abortions and approximately 220,000 children lose their mothers in this way,” he said, adding that the United Nations estimates that universal family planning could save the lives of as many as 175,000 women each year.
However, Mr de Groot said abortion is “barely a fringe issue” in the overall scheme of maternal healthcare in developing nations.
He said that maternal and child health programs should not only include medical funding but also include training of midwives, counselling, medical assistance, training on domestic violence, improving gender equality and awareness, programs that support women to improve their incomes, education and socioeconomic position in society, gender empowerment and programs that tackle sexually transmitted infections.
"Training midwives in Bangladesh, supporting women and children with HIV in Cambodia, providing counselling, medical services and advocating for justice for victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, challenging stigma, raising awareness and treating sexually transmitted infections in Papua New Guinea, are but a few of our many programs that meet the needs and aspirations of women and children in desperate poverty," Mr de Groot.
He added that the $15 million over four years that the Federal Government allocated to maternal healthcare as part of the new arrangement is far short of the $600 million required to achieve the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.
Caritas currently targets approximately 20 per cent of its aid expenditure on these issues and “this should be at least the equivalent amount that the Australian Government supplies through our aid program,” Mr de Groot said. He said that at current levels, federal funding should be about $600 million increasing to $1 billion by 2015. Currently AusAID provides no publicly available data on the spending on these programs.