Senate Adjournment Speech - UK Family Planning Conference

20 June 2017 

I rise tonight to again call on the federal government to commit to global women's health by making a pledge in support of the women and girls around the world. The upcoming opportunity for the government to make this urgent commitment is the Global Summit on Family Planning in London on 11 July—World Population Day. Priti Patel, Britain's current Secretary of State for International Development, has said that the UK expects the international summit to secure extra funding from the global community for family planning, just like the She Decides pledging conference that occurred in March this year in Belgium did.

Ms Patel wants this summit to represent a step change on family planning. It may even end up being the next phase of family planning's global rescue mission. Why do we need that? It is all because of President Trump's reintroduction and dramatic expansion of the global gag rule. This rule strips foreign NGOs of all US health funding if they use funds from any source to offer information about abortions, provide abortions or advocate for liberalised abortion laws. The rule now applies to 15 times as much USAID funding and is resulting in over US$9 billion of critical global health funding being cut.

The result of this damaging policy will be the dramatic reduction of available health services and a restriction of women's choices right across the developing world. This will create a crisis for the human rights of women and girls, including their health, their safety and child protection. No woman or girl should have to risk her life, but any country, like Australia, that has an objective of achieving effective coverage in health and reproductive health services, particularly in developing countries, must consider this global gag rule a threat to that objective. Any country, like Australia, that has signed the sustainable development goals to reduce maternal mortality and to empower women to make more informed decisions about their health must consider this global gag rule a threat to those goals. This is such a backward step for gender equality. It sends a message to the world that women do not have the right to make autonomous decisions.

A woman's access to family planning should not be a political football to be given and withdrawn depending on who is in government. The image—that photo—of rich white men in suits surrounding President Trump as he signed the order was awfully symbolic. But the thing is: those men will not suffer the effects of their decision. It is the poor women in the world and the poorest countries in the world who will pay the price. Women's mortality and morbidity due to illegal and unsafe abortions is likely to increase. Already an estimated 225 million women globally lack access to modern contraception. Complications in pregnancy are the second leading killer of girls aged 15 to 19, and every day 830 women die from preventable causes linked to pregnancy and childbirth. That is over 30 per hour. It is one since I started speaking. But cutting this funding will not mean fewer abortions. All the evidence from the last period when the global gag was in place shows that the number of unwanted pregnancies and abortions increased when the global gag rule came in.

A study by researchers at Stanford University found that after President George W Bush's albeit weaker version of the global gag rule came into effect in 2001 in African countries that had been using this family planning funding the abortion rate increased. During its eight years the Bush global gag rule added about 36 million unwanted pregnancies to the world and 15 million abortions. In practical terms the Trump global gag rule means 21,700 mothers will lose their lives between 2017 and 2020, 6.5 million unintended pregnancies will not be prevented and 2.1 million abortions will be unsafe. In addition, expect 300,000 more pregnancy-related deaths. The Trump global gag rule means the withdrawal of treatment from 275,000 pregnant women living with HIV, whose children may miss out on crucial antiretroviral drugs at the moment of birth—a treatment shown to be extremely effective at preventing transmission of HIV from mothers to their infants. The global gag rule means 70 million condoms will not be distributed to prevent unintended pregnancies, HIV and other STIs, while 725,000 HIV tests will not be provided to enable people to know their HIV status. These are statistics that are catastrophic, but they are preventable.

In February this year I wrote to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ms Bishop, asking her to intervene on behalf of the women and girls around the world. I urged her to ensure Australia joined the governments of the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Canada, Denmark and Norway in making a significant contribution to the international funding pool designed to maintain family planning services across the developing world as best as possible. Minister Bishop responded to me that she had sent Dr Sharman Stone, our Ambassador for Women and Girls, to the March pledging conference known as 'She Decides'—but that was it. Dr Stone went to the pledging conference, but she went without any funding. In her letter, Minister Bishop committed to nothing but a motherhood statement. There was no funding committed by Australia. Well, there is an opportunity for Australia to change that outcome this time at the London pledging conference.

But why did they contribute no funding? Under the coalition Australia's development assistance has shrivelled to just a pitiful 0.22 per cent of gross national income—the lowest level since comparable records began in 1970 and well below the OECD average. By contrast, the UK's Conservative government has held fast to the principles it signed up to in the Sustainable Development Goals. In 2013 the UK met the commitment established by the UN in 1970 to spend 0.7 per cent of its gross national income on aid. In 2015 it passed a bill legally protecting that commitment. While Labor in Australia were in government, overseas development assistance increased from 0.28 per cent of gross national income in 2007-08 to 0.37 in 2013-14. Indeed, when we were in government, we were on track to reach 0.5 per cent by 2017-18. We repealed the Howard government's Reagan-lite prohibition on Australian international development assistance to organisations that deliver family-planning services, and we doubled the funding of family-planning services helping women in developing countries.

Whilst I acknowledge this government's ongoing support for the SPRINT initiative, which is funding sexual and reproductive health services in crisis settings in the Asia-Pacific, and also the government's promise of ensuring that 80 per cent of Australia's aid budget addresses gender equality, women's issues and empowerment, this is simply not enough, because our aid budget is not enough. Australia must do more by increasing our financial support for sexual and reproductive health to fill that gap created by the global gag rule and fostering financial and political support for the United Nations Population Fund. The UK summit on 11 July in London is an opportunity for Australia to start showing some regional and global leadership based on our Australian values. It is an opportunity for the government to show its commitment to gender equality. I urge this government to make Australia a significant part of the rescue mission for family-planning funding to defend freedom of choice and self-determination of women and girls throughout the world.