Abortion Rights Under Fire

It’s time to fight for total reproductive freedom

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Campaigning for childcare and paid maternity leave. Photo by Peter Murray.

“Not the Church, not the State, women must decide their fate” is a popular chant at marches. It’s a golden oldie, unfortunately, because women have not won reproductive freedom. Since the re-election of the Howard Government, these words have become more urgent than ever. Health Minister Tony Abbott has teamed up with the likes of parliamentary secretary for health Christopher Pyne, Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson, Governor General Michael Jefferies and the Catholic Church to launch an assault on abortion rights. With more than 80% of Australians — including 70% of Catholics — supporting a woman’s right to choose, these patriarchs are targeting late-term abortions. There’s an abortion “epidemic,” they claim, and too many women are terminating late, they howl. This is the prelude to another attempt to remove Medicare funding for abortions altogether and return women to days of the coathanger.

The myth… Margaret Kirkby, from the Women’s Abortion Action Campaign, gives statistics showing that no such “epidemic” exists. There has been a decline in abortions over the past three years, and almost all are performed before 13 weeks (99% in 2002). Congenital abnormalities, late detection of pregnancy or no money to pay for an earlier termination account for the few late-term abortions.

…vs real life. Abortion is still illegal in every state and territory except the Australian Capital Territory. States’ laws vary but, overall, terminations are available under certain circumstances, such as a threat to a woman’s life or mental health. Even so, the decision to abort is in the hands of doctors, not the woman.

Abortions at 16-17 weeks cost between $600 and $800. Melbourne has the only clinic in the country that performs terminations after 21 weeks, costing $4,500 plus accommodation and travel expenses.

Removing abortion from Medicare would severely damage the quality and equity of women’s health. Only the rich would be able to access safe procedures, and poor women would be forced to use “backyard” operators, resulting in deaths and permanent injuries.

The Victorian Labor Government is planning to “protect the welfare of babies before they are born,” by making it mandatory for medical practitioners to report fetuses they suspect to be at risk after birth to the Department of Human Services — that is, to take total control over a woman’s body by giving the fetus the legal “protection” of a child.

Every woman must have the right to end a pregnancy, whenever, and the decision must be hers. The procedure must be free. The abortion pill RU486, banned in Australia since 1996, must also be made available at no cost.

Which women should breed? Remember the other hype about a “fertility strike?” In 2002, there was similar “concern” within the Howard Government and business circles that women aren’t breeding enough. Given the chance, women decide on their terms about if and when to have children! Howard’s federal treasurer, Peter Costello, set out to correct this behaviour, dictating that our duty to society is to have three children — one for the husband, one for the wife and one for the country.

Dig deeper and we find that only white, married women should have these children. If such women make their choices, they’re selfish, unfeminine and un-Australian. But for others, it’s different. Indigenous and other women of colour, women with disabilities and poor women have been subjected to forced sterilisation, welfare authorities taking their children away or infant deaths caused by poverty and the racist health system. Refugee women and their children are put behind bars and then deported to the danger they fled. The Howard Government will not legalise same-sex marriage or allow lesbians access to reproductive technology, such as IVF (invitro fertilisation) and donor sperm.

Re-igniting the fight for abortion rights. Feminists responded swiftly to the anti-abortion assault. In several cities, coalitions have been formed. More than 60 women and men attended Melbourne’s meeting which founded the Pro Choice Coalition, made up of activists from the Left, student and union movements and feminists from various non- government organisations. The Victorian Trades Hall endorsed the coalition, stating its support for “ a women’s right to choose and the provision of free, accessible and safe abortion.”

As Melbourne’s Pro Choice Coalition takes shape, the question is whether to focus on abortion exclusively or join it to other reproductive rights battles. Radical Women is pushing for a multi-issue approach that would link the rightwing attack on abortion to the Howard Government’s defunding of community childcare and resistance to a national paid maternity leave scheme. RW argues that none of these reproductive rights issues can be separated from other necessities for real choice, such as equal pay and economic independence.

In early 2004, RW initiated a campaign for free, 24-hour childcare and employer-funded paid maternity leave. A rally in August, endorsed by unions, Socialist Alliance, Radical Women, the International Women’s Day Collective, Women for Peace, Fertility Access Rights and Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, tied these demands to pay equity for childcare workers and equal pay, equal opportunity and secure jobs for women.  

The economics of choice. Australia and the United States are the only two wealthy countries without a national paid maternity leave scheme. This puts us behind the rest of the planet. Singapore, Switzerland, Laos, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Lebanon and Costa Rica are just some countries providing employer-funded schemes that pay women their full earnings. In Australia, two-thirds of working women do not have any form of paid maternity leave. New mothers get only a maternity allowance from Centrelink of $3,000.

If you want  to drive women out of the workforce and into full-time motherhood, the most effective way is to make childcare hard to get. Howard’s first two budgets did exactly that. In 1996-1997, funding for childcare was drastically cut. The abolition of operational subsidies for the popular community-based centres led to a weekly fee increase of $20 per child. Altogether, approximately $850 million was taken from childcare between 1996 and 2000, resulting in many centres closing down or having to greatly increase their fees. Large corporate operators, such as ABC Learning, have cornered what is now a multi-billion dollar market.

In 2000, the government introduced a childcare package limited to parents on extremely low incomes. In order to qualify for the $137 maximum weekly Child Care Benefit (CCB), a family’s combined annual earnings cannot exceed $31,755. That’s $610 a week — less than the average wage. Child care costs an average of $50 a day, or $250 a week in Sydney. And that is just for one child. How could a family earning just $610 a week afford to pay the gap of $113 a week? The answer is they can’t.  

The Howard Government announced in its 2004-2005 budget a 30% rebate on childcare fees which doesn’t come into effect until 2006 — small crumbs to pacify the outcry for childcare. This still doesn’t take into account the long waiting periods: six months for a place in a day care centre is normal. Each year, more than 100,000 children miss out.  

Women’s average earnings are 66% of men’s. Although more women are in the paid workforce than before, most are in low-paying jobs: we make up 72% of part-time employees and 62% of casuals. In 2002, women’s average total full-time earnings were $555 compared to $839 for men, and the gap keeps widening. Men’s wages increased by $58 between May 2000 and May 2002, compared with women’s increase of $33. Today, 48% of female workers earn less than $500 per week and 35% under $400 pw.

For full reproductive freedom! When the post-election attacks on abortion began, the RW-initiated campaign around these issues formed into the Campaign for Women’s Reproductive Rights (CWRR). CWRR launched a national petition putting the demands for childcare, paid maternity leave and the unconditional recognition of every woman’s right to make her own reproductive choices, including free, safe abortion on demand and the end to sterilisation without consent. The petition will be presented to the House of Representatives on International Women’s Day this year.

It is important that all reproductive rights campaigns work together. Only through a multi-issue approach, matching the multi-pronged agenda of the Right, will women win abortion rights and real reproductive choice.

It’s also crucial that pro-choice activists stand with Howard’s other targets: unions, Aboriginal people, refugees, welfare recipients and queers — at least half of whom are the very women whose reproductive freedom Howard wants to crush. Solidarity is also about strengthening each and every battle by our common resistance — and winning!

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