Saturday morning, October 28, 2006, was freezing and threatening rain in Melbourne. On a day like this, Wellington Parade, outside the Fertility Control Clinic, is like a wind tunnel. But the battle for abortion rights is no comfort zone, whatever the weather. Thirty pro-choice demonstrators rallied that morning to defend the clinic from the fanatical Helpers of God’s Precious Infants and to hand over a petition to a representative of the Labor-led government of Victoria to decriminalise abortion in that State.
This was four weeks before the State election, to be held on November 25. Campaign for Women’s Reproductive Rights (CWRR) turned its monthly clinic defence into an occasion to deliver the first batch of 250 signatures supporting a petition for free abortion on demand, access to Assisted Reproductive Technology for all women and free, 24-hour, community-controlled childcare. The petition, which will continue through March 2007, reflects the build-up of public pressure on the government to guarantee women the right to make their own reproductive decisions.
Abortion is still in Victoria’s Crimes Act 1958. A court ruling in 1969 made terminations legal if a doctor decides that a woman’s mental or physical health is endangered by the pregnancy. It’s on this basis alone that women have been able to access abortions. But the recent conviction of Dr Suman Sood in New South Wales for unlawfully procuring a miscarriage is a shocking warning. Women and doctors are on notice to beware in case the State decides they’ve crossed the shadowy line between what is lawful and what is criminal. The Australian Capital Territory is the one place in Australia where abortion is legal, and only since 2002.
Victorian law on access to IVF (in vitro fertilisation) is equally backward. Available only to women who are medically infertile, single women and lesbians are excluded. Victoria mirrors the rest of the country in the privatisation of childcare, which is now in short supply and exhorbitantly expensive.
It’s no wonder CWRR’s petition is popular! From rallies for union or queer rights to shopping malls, women and men are signing. The right of every woman to make her own independent decision, and to expect the social supports, is a demand which is gaining momentum.
Not the Church, Not the State! On that freezing October morning, people on Wellington Parade — from God’s Helpers to tram travellers — got to hear several powerful messages through CWRR’s megaphone. Speakers from Civil Union Action, the Socialist Alliance electoral campaign, National Union of Students, Permanent Revolution Group, Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party connected the fights of unionists, same-sex partners and students to women’s reproductive rights. These messages from the grassroots were taken up by Carlo Carli, Labor Party Member of the Victorian State Parliament, who accepted the petition. Carli spoke of his own support for abortion rights and the battle within his party over decriminalisation.
At the Victorian state conference of the Australian Labor Party in May last year, a showdown between the party’s right wing and progressives concluded in the decision to reaffirm its pledge to remove abortion from the Crimes Act and make it legal at any stage. As Christine Campbell, anti-abortion ALP MP with ties to Right to Life, bleated: “This would allow women ‘abortion on demand.’” Yes!
However, the refusal of Premier Steve Bracks to act on the decision has signalled not just his own anti-abortion position but the Right’s capacity for dirty tricks. A few months before the election, Bracks reined in pro-choice MP, Carolyn Hirsh, who had planned to introduce a private member’s bill to decriminalise abortion. Well-organised and bankrolled misogynist forces have been in his ear, such as the Exclusive Brethren and the Coalition Against Decriminalisation of Abortion (which shares a mailing address with Right to Life and Catch the Fire Ministries) .
Keeping up the heat. At the time of writing, the re-elected Bracks Government has made no discernible move to decriminalise abortion. It is also dragging its heels on the recommendation of the Victorian Law Reform Commission to scrap the requirement of medical infertility for IVF and make the treatment available to independent women, single and lesbian. The post-election results even revealed that the ALP’s ballot preferencing of the anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-union, anti-communist Democratic Labor Party (DLP) clinched the election of a candidate to the Upper House. The DLP’s first post-election declaration was that it would oppose the decriminalisation of abortion. The changes that the majority of Victorians favour will not happen without a powerful push from below. Bracks is the darling of big business, which views women as cheap labour and the breeders of the next generation of workers. For the profit makers, reproductive rights is bad for business. We need only to recall the hysteria a few years ago from the boardrooms over a “fertility strike” by women who weren’t reproducing enough. The skilled labour shortage was then emerging as a crisis.
The arrivial of the contraceptive pill gave women the capacity to exercise a degree of freedom. It has given them some power to decide whether or not to have children and control both when and how often. Their “strike” action, like that of workers withholding their labour, upsets the corporate world. Human labour produces profit, and reproduction delivers the workforce. The interconnected power of women and all working people points to the union movement’s responsibility to tie these indivisible struggles together. Business understands the connection and its revolutionary potential, which is why it does all in its power to keep these movements divided and under control.
In the lead-up to the Victorian election, various unfinished battles spilled over into meet-the-candidates forums and street demonstrations. Indigenous, queer, union, environmental and reproductive rights activists used the electoral process to increase pressure, question contenders and make demands. The election is over, and Bracks’ government is back in business.
It’s time for working people to marshal their collective power and use it. Once these campaigns coalesce around the common need for systemic change, the working class would be well on its way toward realising its power. Until this happens, connecting these rights and joining up these battles would go a long way toward making parliamentarians answerable to the people, not the boardrooms. A crucial fight right now, which belongs to everyone, is for abortion rights: free, safe, on demand and for all women. Women must be freed from solitary domestic confinement, economic dependence on men or welfare, and unsatisfying, often dangerous relationships. When women can live as independent people in their own right, then all our battles will be strengthened by these formidable fighters and leaders with attitude. Strong struggles need women!
Act now! The Campaign for Women’s Reproductive Rights petition is freely available to take to workplaces, campuses, and networks. To get a copy, contact CWRR on firstname.lastname@example.org, via Radical Women on email@example.com or by phoning (03) 9388 0062 or 0425 733 256. Come to CWRR meetings on the first Tuesday of the month and become part of building a broadbased, multi-issue reproductive rights movement.