As world leaders convene for a major family planning summit in London, the Foreign Affairs Minister, Bob Carr, said Australia would double its overseas aid for family planning programs to more than $50 million a year by 2016.
Mr Carr, travelling in Cambodia, told the Herald: "Women have a basic right to reproductive health care … to decide whether, when and how many children they have."
Family planning, once the focus of aid programs designed to curb population growth and boost prosperity, has suffered image problems in recent decades and lost prominence.
In the 1990s, anti-abortion forces in the US succeeded in slashing aid to overseas family planning programs. The Howard government, to win crucial support in the Senate from the anti-abortion campaigner Brian Harradine, stopped foreign aid to organisations that supplied information on, recommended, or provided abortions.
The Rudd government changed the guidelines in 2009 and funding for family planning programs has risen from $2 million in the last years of the Howard government to $26 million.
At least $70 million over the next four years will go to the United Nations Population Fund to promote equitable access to family planning. An extra $10 million will be given to the International Planned Parenthood Federation program to ensure people caught in disasters can gain access to reproductive health services.
But the London conference, organised by the British government and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is set to refocus on the issue and garner $2 billion in pledges by 2020.
A study published on Tuesday in The Lancet said fulfilling unmet contraceptive demand by women in developing countries could reduce global maternal mortality by nearly a third.
But coercive one-child and forced abortion policies in China and forced sterilisations in India have tarnished the cause of family planning programs for years.
The chief executive of CARE Australia, Julia Newton-Howes, said the doubling of Australia's aid was a terrific outcome but the funding should be tracked to ensure it went to sexual and reproductive health programs. Most Australian aid for maternal and child health programs went to child immunisation programs and similar projects.
These were very important but "if a child's mother dies in childbirth that is a worse outcome, and having ten siblings is not a good outcome, either," she said. In a speech yesterday at the London conference, Peter Baxter, the director general of AusAID, said 26 million women across south-east Asia and the Pacific wanted to use modern contraceptives but had no access to them.
Almost one in five pregnancies in Indonesia were thought to be unwanted or mistimed, and only one in five women in Papua New Guinea used modern contraceptives (compared with 71 per cent in Australia), contributing to one of the world's highest maternal mortality rates.
Dr Newton-Howes said it was not enough to provide condoms, IUDs and implants. Problems included the attitudes of religious leaders and husbands who feared contraception would free their wives to "flirt" with others.
However, consultation and education could overcome these barriers. A CARE program in southern Chad set up seven months ago aimed to have 3000 women using modern contraceptives after a year. The target was reached in four months after men and religious leaders were assured of the health benefits.