Crunch time for abortion rights in Victoria: A call to action for pro-choice campaigners

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This year, Victorian women could win the right to choose, at last. Fifty years of dogged

campaigning — in parliament, within the governing Labor Party and in the streets —

to get abortion out of the Crimes Act has brought this fundamental feminist issue to a

head. The state government has been forced to finally consider decriminalisation. On

March 28, the Victorian Law Reform Commission will present its recommendations to

the Attorney-General for debate in parliament. If legal recognition succeeds, Victoria’s

laws will reflect the belief of more than 80 percent of Australians that the right to choose

abortion belongs to every woman.

Unlike so many countries, including the United States, Australia has never formally

enshrined this right. Left to the jurisdiction of states and territories, abortion remains a

crime, although legislative amendments and court rulings have allowed the procedure in

certain circumstances. Only in the Australian Capital Territory has the law been changed

to recognise a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy — and only since 2002!

When anti-choice bigots held their Freedom to Be Born March on
30 July 2007, Campaign for Women’s Reproductive Rights was on the
steps of State Parliament to ensure the pro-choice majority was loud,
proud, and definitely heard. Photo by Michelle Reeves.

In Victoria, the 1958 Crimes Act has covered abortion: both a woman and her abortion

provider can face imprisonment for up to 10 years. Before this law was made more

lenient, illegal abortion was the second-highest cause of maternal mortality Australia-
wide. While women with plenty of money could discreetly access a safe abortion from

a Collins Street specialist paying protection money to the cops, most women had only

coathangers, poisons and backyard quacks to turn to. The horrifying deaths and injuries

led a few doctors to test the Victorian law. In 1969, Judge Menhennit ruled that abortion

would be legal if a doctor decides that a woman’s physical or mental health is at risk.

The Menhennit ruling has served as a lifeline to countless women in Victoria. Most other

states and territories followed suit with similar arrangements.

But abortion is neither secure nor freely available. Women controlling the course of

their lives still sets off hysteria among society’s domesticating zealots. The Helpers of

Gods Precious Infants are a snapshot of this climate. Every month, they march from their

nearby church to East Melbourne’s Fertility Control Clinic. Abortion rights campaigner,

Dr Bertram Wainer, established this clinic in 1972 to provide services that the Menhennit

ruling allowed. The bigots carry a huge statue of Mary and Jesus and lurid pictures

of dead babies misleadingly presented as aborted foetuses. A row of clinic defenders,

organised by Campaign for Women’s Reproductive Rights, keeps the harassers well

away. Every morning, Right to Life diehards stand outside the gates, stalking women

clients as they go in and come out. In 2001 a fanatic, strapped with explosives, burst into

its crowded waiting room and threatened to blow the place up. He shot and killed the

clinic’s security guard.

These crusaders may be street thugs, but they are emboldened by, and part of, an

organised, down-and-dirty political, religious and business network, hell-bent on keeping

women under control. Allies in state and federal parliaments have kept abortion in the

criminal code and attempted several times to remove Medicare coverage. The Gloria

Jeans coffee shop chain is a visible example of business interests campaigning against

abortion rights. The franchise was founded in Australia by members of the evangelical

Hillsong Church, patronised and supported during John Howard’s prime ministership

by then federal treasurer, Peter Costello, and the former prime minister himself. The

company’s links with the anti-abortion, anti-gay Mercy Ministries attracted publicity

in October when staff objected to being required to promote a Cappuccino for a Cause

fundraiser for the charity.

This relentless harassment makes abortion — especially for young, rural and working

class women — more difficult as providers close their doors in response to the ever-
present threat of legal prosecution, increasingly stringent Medicare procedures, and the

possibility of another murder.

Tug of war. The fight for reproductive justice in Victoria has been building as the

squeeze on jobs, services and welfare intensifies. Women are society’s mainstay: they

bear the future workers, sustain the present ones, and care for those whose working life

is past. Profit multiplies in the billions and trillions, thanks to women’s labour, unpaid

in the home and community and underpaid on the job. What’s more, their undervalued

labour lowers the benchmark for wages across the board. Women are the economy’s

pressure point, and when an economy in trouble — as this one is! — women feel the pain

more acutely.

In Australia, childcare places are costly and waiting lists are long. Two-thirds of working

women do not have paid maternity leave. This is in a rich country, but one where close

to ten percent of the population live in poverty. Twenty percent of children under 15 are

in single-parent households, 87 percent of them headed by mothers. In 2003 – 2004, 61

percent of these homes relied on welfare. This system, based on a philosophy of “mutual

obligation,” has become increasingly moralistic and benefits business by forcing sole

parents to take low-paid jobs.

This profit system couldn’t last a day if women ran their own lives, and had a say in how

society should be run!

Victoria’s business-friendly Australian Labor Party (ALP) government has done

everything in its power to resist calls by women and men, from the streets and echoed

inside parliament, to decriminalise abortion. In 2006, ALP Member of Parliament

Caroline Hirsch prepared a bill to remove abortion from the Crimes Act, but withdrew

it under pressure from then Premier Steve Bracks. In August 2007, an attempt by ALP

member, Candy Broad, to present a decriminalisation bill drew opposition from senior

government ministers, most notably John Brumby, Bronwyn Pike and Robert Hulls.

Not so public was another bill to amend both the Crimes Act and the Health Act — not

to decriminalise abortion but to take it out of the Crimes Act and insert it as a crime

within the Health Act. The Menhennit ruling would also be inserted into the legislation.

Effectively, the status quo of 39 years wouldn’t change! Both drafts were aborted, and

in October the new Brumby government tossed the political football to the Victorian

Law Reform Commission. Despite short notice, the commission received more than 500

submissions from organisations and individuals across the state.

Make history! Radical Women’s submission called for abortion on demand, provided

free to all women in all stages of pregnancy. Let’s demolish the moralistic, misogynist

myth that foetuses deserve rights above women. For decades, women have shouted, “Our

bodies, our lives, our right to decide!” and “Not the church, not the state. Women will

decide their fate!” It’s time these words turned into reality.

Anti-abortion forces are seriously organising to silence these demands. Fighters for

reproductive justice have to organise better and harder. And this is both possible and

necessary. The recent win of the campaign for same-sex fertility rights in Victoria proves

this. For years, lesbians and their allies have tenaciously battled for equal rights in

assisted reproduction, surrogacy and adoption. Although the fight is not over, winning

the rights of lesbians and single women to all assisted reproductive technology services,

including donor insemination services, legal parenting recognition for non-birth mothers

in same-sex relationships and the easing of surrogacy regulations is historic. Up against

the same “pro-family” — anti-woman, anti-gay — opposition, this victory is also a

breakthrough for abortion rights.

Pro-choice campaigners cannot rely on the recommendations of the Law Reform

Commission, nor the legal process to follow, to deliver on abortion rights. Here’s what

you can do to help ensure these demands are impossible to ignore:

  • support a petition campaign, initiated by Radical Women, calling for abortion to

    be available, at all stages of pregnancy, free of charge and on demand, through the

    public health care system

  • join Campaign for Women’s Reproductive Rights’ monthly clinic defence
  • come to RW’s public International Women’s Day forum in March
  • get in touch with RW with your ideas.

For more information, or to share your thoughts, contact RW: phone 03-9388-0062 or


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