End the greatest health divide

Media Releases, Opinion article written on the 18 Feb 2009

By the CEOs of Oxfam Australia, CARE Australia and Save the Children Australia
With the global financial crisis crippling his country’s economy and two wars being fought on different fronts there is no doubt that the new US President has an immense to-do-list. It is therefore noteworthy that one of the first actions he took in the White House, on just the third day of his Presidency, was to abolish a rule that denies US taxpayer dollars to international family planning clinics that provide, suggest or mention abortion to women in developing countries. Obama said simply that family planning aid has been used as a "political wedge issue", adding that he had "no desire to continue this stale and fruitless debate".
There are a similar set of policies in place regarding the use of Australian aid in developing countries but sadly, while committing to review these policies, our politicians are yet to take decisive action on what is indeed a stale and fruitless debate created through wedge politics. It is stale and fruitless because it is hopelessly bogged down in moral arguments. This is fundamentally a development issue that is about preventing the unnecessary deaths of women in poor countries who are 300 times more likely to die in childbirth or from pregnancy related complications than women in rich countries.
The Australian policies, known as the ‘AusAID Family Planning Guidelines’, came about as part of a deal done by the Howard Government with the independent senator Brian Harradine to enable the then government to proceed with the sale of Telstra. While the sale of Telstra went ahead a policy was applied that denied women in developing countries the full range of services available to Australian women.
The result of the AusAID policy has not just been an increase in the risk of needless death because of unsafe procedures, the policies themselves have made it increasingly hard for aid and development agencies to carry out any sexual and reproductive health services.

UNICEF refers to the difference in pregnancy risk between women in the developing and developed worlds as the “greatest health divide in the world.” This shocking gap shows how vital it is for all women to have access to comprehensive family planning information and services. A woman in Niger has a 1 in 7 chance of dying in childbirth. That is in stark contrast to the risk for mothers in the United States, where it’s just 1 in 4,800.

The AusAID Family Planning Guidelines have impeded aid providers’ delivering vital health services. Since their introduction the total funding for family planning had declined by more than 80 per cent by 2007.
Australia is a signatory to the internationally agreed Millennium Development Goals – eight specific targets to halve global poverty by 2015. Alarmingly, of the eight MDGs, least progress has been made towards goal five, which commits to “reduce by three quarters the maternal mortality ratio; and achieve, by 2015, universal access to reproductive health”.

Oxfam Australia, CARE Australia, and Save the Children Australia are three of the largest Australian international aid and development agencies. Our collective experience shows clearly that progress towards this reduction in maternal mortality requires a comprehensive approach to the provision of sexual and reproductive health services.

Each day that the AusAID Family planning guidelines remain in place, the capacity of Australian agencies to provide comprehensive reproductive health services to women and communities as part of our development assistance programs is impaired. Ultimately, we are concerned for the lives of women world-wide and believe that the guidelines act as a barrier to wider poverty alleviation efforts.
Andrew Hewett – Executive Director, Oxfam Australia
Julia Newton-Howes – Chief Executive, CARE Australia
Peter Falvey – Chief Executive, Save the Children Australia

This opinion editorial was published in The Canberra Times on 17 February 2009.