Around the world, the Church, the State, religious zealots and the bosses are lining up against women. They want to rein us in, particularly to get control of our bodies. In Afghanistan, women are being massacred under the religious Taliban laws for failing to cover every inch of flesh or being seen unchaperoned by a male relative. In many countries, women are routinely screened on the job for pregnancy and dismissed if found to be pregnant. In the United States, government funding for abortion services has been savagely cut, while fetus worshippers bomb clinic and assassinate doctors. In Australia, a low-intensity warfare against women’s reproductive rights has escalated into a massive assault.
Each Australian state and territory has its own abortion law. Everywhere, abortion is a crime, even though most of the population supports a woman’s right to choose. After decades of organising, women have won some access to abortion, but under prescribed circumstances and only with doctors’ permission. For the past two years, the Model Criminal Code Officers Committee (MCCOC) – a standing committee of lawyers established by Attorneys-General – has been working to standardise Australia’s laws. It recommended that abortion remain in the criminal code. The model it proposed was South Australia’s, then the most restrictive law in the country.
Reproductive rights in the firing line. In early 1998, two Perth doctors were arrested and charged for performing a termination. This set off an alert across the country. To feminists, the charges and pending trial signalled the beginnings of a clampdown. Mass protest actions were swift, and the demands were loud and clear – drop the charges and repeal the abortion laws.
The national mobilisations forced the WA Parliament to liberalise the state’s abortion laws. However, a woman still requires a doctor’s permission. Worse, anti-abortionists have praised the legislation for “providing a framework for restriction.”
Then in September, the national phone directory, Yellow Pages, advised Family Planning WA (FPWA) that it is now company policy not to allow a section on abortion nor any mention of abortion in its listing. The issue, it said, is “too politically controversial.” This meant that FPWA can do longer advertise its services under the headings “Abortion” or “Pregnancy.” The agency’s application for a “talking healthline” on abortion was also refused.
In August, an Independent member of the Australian Capital Territory’s (ACT) Legislative Assembly, Paul Osborne, introduced his Health Regulation (Maternal Health Information) Bill. The bill, passed at 3.00am on November 26, significantly reduces women’s reproductive choices in the ACT. Included in its provisions are mandatory written parental consent for women under 18 years of age and a 72-hour “cooling off period” between a woman’s decision to have an abortion and actually undergoing the procedure.
Prior to an abortion, a woman is required to be informed of the “medical risks” associated with the procedure and any “possible detrimental psychological effects.” There is no requirement for information about the risks associated with continuing the pregnancy nor the effects of parenthood and the potential trauma of giving up a child for adoption. She must also be told about agencies which assist women through pregnancy or arrange adoptions. Most harassing of all, she must be shown pictures of a fetus as it develops at two-weekly intervals, from conception to full-term. Women who have gone to the Right to Life’s (RTL) “pregnancy advice centres” would be familiar with these procedures.
If the worst is the MCCOC’s favoured model for a standardised law on abortion, then the ACT’s is now a likely choice.
Feminist counter-offensive works. The pro-choice response has been rapid and significant. The highly visible national protests against the prosecution of the WA doctors set them free and forced WA lawmakers to back off. Victoria’s most momentous action was in April. In Melbourne, feminist women and men blockaded Parliament House and prevented the RTL’s annual March for Little Feet from reaching its destination. Fresh from the battlefront at the dockyards, where many of us had defended the Maritime Union of Australia against a concerted effort to smash unionism, we locked arms and stood for hours, singing a song from the U.S. barricades: “We know, we know what we want, and we want it now . . . Abortion rights throughout the land . . . Safe, legal, on demand.” RTL decided not to face us.
Unfortunately, protest, which began so spiritedly, has dwindled to a trickle. Its major shortcoming was its central demand: calling only for the repeal of the laws provided no direction. By demanding federal laws that guarantee real reproductive choice for all women, the national campaign could have gained momentum and taken on any future assault – whatever and wherever it may be. It could have defeated the Osborne bill, for instance. In the ACT, public outcry forced Osborne to delay the initial presentation of his bill. The bizarre machinations by which Right to Life Attorney-General Gary Humphries and “pro-choice” Chief Minister Kate Carnell eventually steamrolled it through parliament could have been successfully resisted.
Since the battle of WA, the only national response has come from feminist academics and politicians who have conducted a vigorous campaign on the internet and through agency networks. Their debate was confined to legal analysis and solutions, their strategy limited to lobbying politicians or appealing to the owners of Yellow Pages. While this is sometimes a useful tactic for organising, it’s no substitute for a mass-based counterforce armed with a political platform.
Fight for self-determination. The struggle for women’s reproductive freedom is a struggle over who holds power in our society. The capitalist system is based on the private accumulation of property and the exploitation of labour. It cannot exist without the constant reproduction and replacement of its worn-out workers. Women bear the brunt of this burden. We are expected to be breeding machines for new generations of wage slaves – we are the super-cheap source of cheap labour. In this role, we are legally men’s chattels.
Women are forced into either having children they have not planned for, or being sterilised without their consent. Most are denied access to reproductive technologies. Our sexuality is even defined for us – namely, heterosexual and monogamous. State control over women’s bodies takes many forms, but it has always been guided by one overwhelming imperative – the drive for profit.
Reproductive freedom is more than the right to free, safe, accessible abortion on demand. It’s also the right to freely available and reliable contraception and the end to forced sterilisations of Indigenous women, women of ethnic minorities, poor women and women with disabilities. It’s the right to free, high-quality, 24-hour childcare. It means unrestricted access to reproductive research and technologies, nationalised and under the control of women.
For us, reproductive choice is a necessity, bound up with our fight for self-determination. Women must be free to make our own judgements about if, when and how to have children. We must make these decisions without economic or social coercion. To have real choice, we must have economic independence.
In the face of continuing attacks on our abortion rights, we need to build a mass grassroots movement, which will show the men who control the political debate that we mean business. A national campaign led by women and uniting women and men of all colours, sexualities, ages, abilities and occupations can do this. Taking our multi-issue demands onto the campuses, into our unions, throughout our communities and onto the streets would give the campaign the force of an avalanche. The message to those in power will be unmistakable: Ignore us at your peril!