Amid a heated gay marriage debate and undying speculation over the Labor Party’s future, one serious political development has managed to largely fly beneath the media radar. That development is the formal announcement of ‘Labor for Life’: a group of Labor MPs, members and supporters who have mobilised to campaign against abortion, among other issues. This announcement should deeply concern Australians who care about human rights and saving lives.
Members of ‘Labor for Life’, along with ‘pro-life’ Coalition MPs, have been key opponents of efforts to achieve reproductive choice for women in both Australia and developing countries. As one example, MPs in both major parties have supported a ban on using Australian aid funding for a range of sexual and reproductive health services, including safe and legal abortion. In place from 1996-2009, the recent lifting of these restrictions has been a continued rallying call for anti-abortion campaigners from both major parties.
Anti-abortion campaigning prevents access to safe, legal abortion, which only increases the prevalence of unsafe, and deadly, abortion. Abortion is among the safest medical procedures in the world when conducted by trained professionals. But when skilled care is unavailable, as in many developing countries, abortion endangers women’s lives.
These girls and young women die when, because of a mixture of legal restrictions, resource shortages and gender discrimination, they are forced to seek out untrained practitioners. Common methods include swallowing bleach or toxic levels of anti-malarial drugs or inserting sharp objects, such as sticks or wire, into the uterus to induce bleeding, often resulting in fatal infections. Women sometimes also risk serious physical injury. In a case currently before the UN’s Committee On The Elimination Of Discrimination Against Women, ‘L.C’, a 13 year old Peruvian girl, was raped by an older man. Pregnant and denied access to abortion, L.C jumped from a rooftop. She is now a quadriplegic.
Despite the enormous risk involved in seeking an unsafe abortion, for some young girls it is the safest in a limited range of choices. In some developing countries, a girl has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than she does of attending school. Often forcibly impregnated as the result of sexual violence, young girls without access to safe medical care have up to a one in five chance of dying if they are forced to continue the pregnancy. A pregnancy often also guarantees an end to their schooling and consequently to even the most basic aspirations they may have for their lives. Their chances of ending up permanently disabled, for example by suffering from obstetric fistula, and the extreme stigma and rejection that follows, are high – as are the chances that they will deliver stillborn or extremely premature infants.