Pro-choice warriors in Australia launch offensive against the far right

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We came from Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney — activists from the frontlines of what is growing into a full-on fight for abortion rights in Australia. This was the first interstate assembly of grassroots campaigners in my decades of reproductive rights activism. We met over the February 6-7 weekend at The New South Wales Teachers Federation in Sydney.

The conference was jointly convened by three east coast organisations. From Sydney came Women’s Abortion Action Campaign (WAAC). From Brisbane was the Pro-Choice Action Collective (PCAC). Radical Women (RW) represented Melbourne.

Two momentous developments spurred organisers to call the conference. The first was the 2008 decision that decriminalised abortion in Victoria state, making the procedure legal in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy; the second was the arraignment in Queensland of a 19-year-old woman, and her 21-year-old partner, for aborting her fetus.

If convicted, the teen faces seven years in prison, and her boyfriend faces three years. She is the first woman to confront such prosecution in half a century.

Unlike the U.S., where the Supreme Court legalised abortion throughout the country in 1973, no equivalent legal ruling exists in Australia. Until state Supreme Court rulings allowed abortion under some circumstances in Victoria and New South Wales, most women had to “choose” between forced pregnancy — or the possibility of death or prison by having a backyard abortion. Even where women had some legal protection, their reproductive rights were non-existent. Termination of a pregnancy could occur only if a doctor deemed a woman’s physical or mental health to be at risk.

Finally, in 2002 the Australian Capital Territory legalised abortion. This was followed by Victoria’s law reform six years later. But the rest of Australian women remain trapped in the past of 19th century “morality.”

New battleground. Queensland’s decision to prosecute the young woman is covered with the grubby fingerprints of rightwing forces. Victoria’s advance on abortion was dynamite, and pro-choice fighters celebrated its potential to impact other states. But a small, powerful anti-abortion movement also reacted swiftly.
The young couple became hostages in a shabby campaign to stop Victoria’s reforms from reaching a state with a long history of reactionary politics. Queensland pioneered race-based, apartheid-style laws. One of its biggest infamies was a raid on a Brisbane abortion clinic in 1985, where police interrogated women, seized 20,000 patient files and indicted two doctors.

But Queenslanders also have a proud history of resistance to such attacks. Today, the PCAC, a coalition of socialists, students, feminists and unionists, is leading a fight for the couple’s unconditional release and for free abortion on demand.

Their campaign, which includes petitions, community information stalls and street rallies, is gaining steam in Queensland and beyond.

Their most public adversary is Labor Party Premier Anna Bligh, a self-proclaimed “feminist.” Bligh defends the state’s anti-abortion crusade — in defiance of the majority of Queenslanders and her own party majority. She contends that the young couple are being tried for importing an illegal drug. This is a lie! They face charges under the draconian “Offences Against the Person” section of the 1899 Criminal Code, not for federal drugs offences. Bligh is merely pandering to the religious right, which forms a key part of her political base.

Grassroots action plan. The Sydney conference formed a collaborative national leadership, capable of doing effective battle for what is shaping into the next round of Australia’s abortion wars.
Participants analysed the Queensland and Victorian developments, looked at the laws in other states and territories, and discussed abortion as pivotal to women’s liberation.

Activists pooled information about an ominous build-up of anti-abortion mobilisations, such as Right to Life’s international conference to be held in Sydney in May, and mapped plans to counter-organise.

Another battle is the Catholic Church’s legal challenge to Victoria’s new law. It demands “freedom of conscience” for anti-choice health practitioners as a way to undermine the law.

At a large public meeting on Saturday, a wider audience learned about Queensland’s case as a watershed for reproductive rights. The body unanimously passed motions demanding that Queensland drop the prosecution and that anti-abortion laws be repealed throughout Australia. Many attendees signed up to support PCAC.

The gloves are off. Globally, the right wing is mobilising on many fronts, trying to shred all remaining rights of the exploited and downtrodden. This includes dragging women back into domestic slavery.

But like elsewhere, women in Australia are determined to advance, not go backward.

We activists returned to our respective battle zones armed with concrete plans for interstate actions and ongoing collaboration — and energised by a commitment to build the Queensland campaign nationally and mobilise to win abortion rights across Australia.

To get involved, contact Radical Women at radicalwomen@optusnet.com.au

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