Queensland abortion trial recharges fighters for choice

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On Oct. 14, a young woman and her partner walked free from a court in Cairns, Queensland. A jury acquitted them of charges under the state’s 19th-century criminal code that could have sent them to prison — the woman for intent to procure an abortion and her partner for aiding her. A conviction would have set a dangerous precedent for women across Australia.

Except for in Victoria state and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), abortion is a crime in this country. But over the past 30 years, campaigns to legalise abortion have won court rulings that allow a legal termination if a doctor vouches that a woman’s mental or physical health is at risk. In practice, abortion has been widely available. But the prosecution in Cairns alerted the whole country that, as long as abortion remains in the criminal code, any woman or doctor could be next.

Battle lines drawn. Like all richer nations, Australia has prospered by policing women’s fertility. The survival of capitalism depends on women caring for its next generation of workers, often while working outside the home as well. Women have fought hard to gain control over their reproductive lives.

Decriminalisation in the ACT and Victoria were turning points for abortion rights in Australia. Radical Women (RW) in Victoria played a significant part during decades of tenacious grass-roots campaigning, which finally forced the state government to change the law in 2008. Jubilation broke out among pro-choice fighters everywhere.

But retaliation by the anti-abortion movement was swift. It was only six months later that charges were brought against the young Queenslanders.

In February 2010, grass-roots abortion rights organisations met for a weekend to strategise for a fight-back. The Pro-Choice Action Collective (Queensland), RW (Victoria) and the Women’s Abortion Action Campaign (New South Wales) decided to initiate a National Day of Action to demand that the charges be dropped and free, safe abortion on demand be legislated.

On Oct. 9 and throughout the next week of the Queensland trial, actions in six states drew hundreds. Through rallies, speak-outs and vigils, countless people outside Queensland heard about the case for the first time and learned about its far-reaching significance.

Melbourne’s rally, called by RW, also faced off a gang of religious zealots bussed from all over Victoria by “Right to Life” forces. On the steps of Parliament, 200 pro-choicers drowned out 400 woman-haters. Holding coat hangers in raised fists, we chanted, “Back to the backyard. No way!” The assembled bigots were just about all there is to Australia’s tiny anti-choice minority.

Many facets of choice. While other actions focussed more narrowly on abortion rights, Melbourne’s spotlighted the multi-issue dimensions of reproductive justice. Activist speakers from the disability, prisoners’ rights, queer, union, and international solidarity movements eloquently linked the fight for choice to struggles for full equality and self-determination, housing, health and education, decent jobs and equal pay, paid parental leave and childcare.

Speakers also marked Oct. 9 as the ninth anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan and solidarised with our sisters there, whose rights have been trampled by warmongers and profiteers.

Solidarity from all quarters. Endorsements for the nationwide action came from across Australia but also the United States, often the launching base of anti-abortion assaults here. Unions and organisations of students, queers, socialists and women’s services providers underscored the international and multi-faceted character of this fight. As did solidarity messages from the Philippines-based Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights, New Zealand’s Abortion Law Reform Association, doctor delegates of the Service Employees International Union at New York City’s Metropolitan Hospital, and the Freedom Socialist Party’s Australian section.

Nearly 500 signatures to RW’s online petition to the Queensland Parliament showed an even greater spread of solidarity from El Salvador, Costa Rica and Brazil to Ireland, Israel, Pakistan, Indonesia, South Africa, Croatia and beyond.

Harness this victory! The Cairns jurors took less than an hour to reach their unanimous decision. Their “not guilty” verdict robbed anti-abortionists of a very dangerous victory.

But the battle continues. The Queensland government still refuses to decriminalise abortion, and the far right is trying to overturn Victoria’s abortion law reform. In New South Wales, it is lobbying for legislation that would treat “deaths of unborn children” as manslaughter.
Anti-abortion reactionaries are mobilising. What’s needed now is a national reproductive justice movement — a unity of feminists, unionists, queers and people of all colours, abilities and ages around our interlocked interests to confront assaults on abortion rights, wherever they strike, and link this fight to everything a woman needs to make a genuine choice about whether or when to have children. Control of our bodies, control of our lives — full reproductive freedom for all women!

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