Defending Reproductive Freedom: An International Struggle for Women's Rights

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Australian reproductive rights supporters in all cities responded swiftly to the establishment of a coalition of anti-abortion members of parliament by right wing independent Tasmanian Senator, Brian Harradine. 

The first move by Harradine and company was to introduce the Abortion Funding Abolition Act, a Bill designed to remove Medicare rebates for abortions. The Bill was introduced into the Lower House by Alisdair Webster during the the spring session of parliament. The Bill proposes that there will be only two grounds on which a women can obtain the Medicare rebate on an abortion. The first is if the doctor had not performed the abortion on the woman,  “the woman would, in the doctor’s opinion, have died”. The second is if, in order to treat another ailment of the woman, the doctor was unaware that “”the undertaking of the medical service would end the life of the ‘unborn’ human being. 

If an abortion were performed which did not fit either of these very narrow circumstances then no Medicare rebate would be payable.

In Melbourne Radical Women was in the forefront of initiating a group to mobilise to defeat this Bill. This ad hoc grouping organised an extremely successful picket on 12 August 1989, attracting several hundred pro-choice supporters, which protested both the Harradine Bill and the attacks on reproductive rights in the United States. 

From the very start the Melbourne grouping insisted on the need to organise around reproductive rights rather than simply a single issue approach of only talking about abortion rights. That Harradine’s Bill is an attack on working class women, women of colour and teenagers was in the forefront of the Melbourne campaign. In the leaflet building the rally we said,

“Abortion is about the right of women to biological and sexual self determination. It is about our right to be economically independent. It is about being able to make choices about if and when we will bear children. It is an extremely basic issue and one of the bottom lines in the fight for women’s freedom. Because abortion is such a fundamental issue it is one of the first targets picked out by the right wing. The right-wing’s agenda is to shore up the institution of the nuclear family through compulsory pregnancy for able-bodied white women but forced celibacy or sterilisation or DepoProvera for Aboriginal women, disabled women and women in institutions.”

“If carried this Bill will not threaten the performing of abortions but it will put the cost out of the hands of poor women. The cost of having a first trimester abortion will increase dramatically from approximately $80 to $300. Some women will be forced into more risky and more expensive second trimester abortions while they raise the money. Other women, particular teenagers, students, the unemployed and those on sole parents benefits may be forced into continuing unwanted pregnancies or into do it yourself methods or back yard abortions. Women who are economically dependent on men in either marriage or defacto relationships will have to get the money – and permission for an abortion – from their partner. The load on public hospitals  – which are already turning away one woman for every four they do an abortion for – would be massively increased. If carried, the Abortion Funding Termination Act will be likely to force the closure of feminist abortion providers and others that rely on bulk billing Medicare direct.

In the wake of the 12 August action the need for an on-going militant, multi issue reproductive rights group gathered much support. The Campaign for Women’s Reproductive Rights (CWRR) was formed. The grouping consisted of women and men from a number of left parties, feminist organisations, trade unions, community groups and campuses.

Enter the Not So Democratic Socialist Party

The Socialist Workers Party (now [in 1990] the Democratic Socialist Party) was one of the many organisations which participated in the founding of CWRR. One of their members proposed that CWRR organise a major rally on 11 November in solidarity with US pro-choice forces, forces which hoped to get a million people on the streets to fight for reproductive freedom on 12 November. This idea was enthusiastically embraced as the major project of CWRR for the months ahead. DSP members also distributed leaflets inviting CWRR supporters to attend a conference they were holding on16 and17 September called ‘Rebuilding the Women’s Movement’. A number of curious CWRR members, including Radical Women supporters, decided to attend.

It seems the DSP doesn’t like to participate in broad democratic coalitions — even when their major action proposal is taken up — if a range of viewpoints are raised and discussed. At the opening plenary of their conference they invited women who attended to get more involved in the women’s movement by signing up to get involved in campaigns. Their list included the Victorian Childcare Action Group and the International Women’s Day Collective, both of which the DSP is heavily involved in. The list also included Women’s Abortion Action Campaign (WAAC).

Was this simply a confusion of names? CWRR members knew that WAAC had not existed in Melbourne for a nearly a decade. Clarification was sought. Did they really mean people should sign up to get involved in CWRR? The answer was delivered, “no, the DSP  intended to ‘revitalise’ WAAC as there were problems with CWRR”  – which they didn’t want to discuss in the plenary but would raise in the workshop on abortion rights.

At the workshop DSP members argued curiously that WAAC was preferable to CWRR as it was an already existing group. Funny idea of an ‘existing’ group! The real reason then came out. The DSP wanted a single issue group which only addressed the question of abortion as it thought such a group would be ‘less confusing’ and attract a broader range of women. And then just to try and appeal to any stray radical feminists who may have wandered into their conference they threw in the argument that WAAC would be better because it would be ‘women only’ whereas CWRR had some men involved. Workshop participants were also told that WAAC planned to organise a rally on 11 November.

CWRR members argued against this outrageous announcement and urged the DSP to build and participate in a democratic CWRR and to organise the rally through CWRR. The DSP was silent on this but made their position clear by staying away from CWRR.

And WAAC? Some DSP members claim that WAAC has been ‘revitalised’ in Melbourne. CWRR members have been unable to find any public manifestations to support this claim.

Why A Multi-Issue Approach?

The strength of CWRR is its multi-issue perspective, the very thing the DSP so vehemently opposes. Reproductive rights is about the right of women to have control of their own bodies. The right to choose to carry a pregnancy to term is as important as the right to choose to have an abortion. What does reproductive freedom mean for a disabled woman or an Aboriginal woman forcibly injected with Depoprovera? What are the demands she would raise? What about  a woman who reluctantly has an abortion because she is not eligible for maternity leave, can’t get child care and knows that to be a sole parent in this society almost inevitably means poverty? What would her demands be? A multi-issue campaign is one that is broad and that can really incorporate the demands for choice of those women who are most oppressed.

International Links Made on 11 November

The rally organised by CWRR on 11 November was immensely successful. It was militant, loud and spirited. It sent a message to those campaigning in the US to stop the roll-backs and to gain access to abortion for all women in every state of the Union; and that on the other side of the world people are organising in solidarity.

Here’s some examples of that!

Statements of Support to the November 11 Campaign for Women’s Reproductive Rights Demonstration

Hello Australia!

Greetings from your fighting friends in San Joaquin County, the heart of California. We, like you, have banded together to say in no uncertain terms that abortion rights are absolutely non-negotiable and that we intend to fight like hell to keep them, extend them and assure reproductive freedom for all women.

Since the US Supreme Court in July tried to turn back the clock and gut Roe v Wade, the 1973 decision legalising abortion, millions of men and women have hit the streets, linked arms, linked legs and linked commitment to end the right wing onslaught that seeks to send women back to the home and the unemployed or underemployed work forces and the poor houses. The attacks are vicious. The attacks are frequent. The attacks threaten to sentence women, especially poor and young women, to death at the hands of back alley butchers. But as history has shown, we, if unified, are unstoppable.

We must be militant. We must be strong. We must work together. So lets go make some history and win this battle once and for all.

In Solidarity, the San Joaquin Pro-choice Coalition. Stockton, California

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The San Francisco Bay Area Coalition Against Operation Rescue, a community reproductive rights coalition which has led the clinic defense movement against the right wing clinic blockaders in Northern California, joins you in proclaiming the international solidarity of women and men around the world in the war for abortion rights.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, not even the earth quake can shake our determination to reverse the US government’s attacks on women and all oppressed people. We stand with you, too, combat the anti-life terrorists in whatever form they appear — clinic harassers or government officials. Our movement has no borders and we will eventually kick the anti-abortionists off every continent!

Venceremos!

In solidarity, Bay Area Coalition Against Operation Rescue

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US Radical Women sends warm greetings to the Campaign for Women’s Reproductive Rights!

Your solidarity with US women’s struggle for reproductive freedom is a model for feminists around the world. Just as women’s oppressions — and racism, heterosexism and capitalism — reach around the globe so should our movement for human liberation.

Down with right wing abortion clinic bombers and bashers!

For free abortion on demand around the globe!

Down with the Harradine Bill!

No forced sterilisation; ban Depo-Provera; for free 24-hour quality childcare and quality health care for all!

In Struggle, Constance Scott, US Organiser Radical Women

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Statements from Australia to the 12 November Abortion Rights Marches in the US

Greetings to US fighters for the Right To Choose!

The Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) is an international Trotskyist-Feminist organisation which is involved in many of the struggles for the liberation of working people.

The Australian Section of the FSP stands with you in your November 11 mobilisation to defend abortion rights in the USA. It is clear to us that the recent decision of the Supreme Court to subvert the intent of Roe v Wade  is part of the general right-wing push to crush the ability of working class people, in particular women, to organise and throw off the onerous burden of a decaying social and economic system. The war on the rights of working people in the USA has flared up again over the past decade, starting with the destruction of PATCO by the foetus worshipper Reagan. The Right has been allowed to win too many battles – this one must see them defeated!

The right to choose is in its essence the right to control one’s own mind as well as one’s own body. Too many people in the US have this right denied to them – the people of colour sentenced to rot or to die by a racist judicial system, the Native American nations whose very existence is under constant attack through Washington’s genocidal policies, and, of course, the thousands of poor women – mainly women of colour –  who are sentenced to death or maiming at the hands of the back street abortion butchers.

It is essential to us in Australia that you fighters for reproductive rights win the war over the right to abortions in the US. Time and again we have been reminded that a victory for right-wing forces in the USA means an attack by their compatriots here. Already they have taken heart from the decision in Webster v Reproductive Rights by attempting to force through a bill to remove Medicare (Medicaid) funding for abortions. And the Federal Government is currently attempting to smash an airline union using PATCO as a model. The US is still the ideological heart of imperialism, and a victory for you is a victory for oppressed people everywhere.

The Freedom Socialist Party, like its sister organisation, Radical Women, is involved in the Campaign for Women’s Reproductive Rights, which is building a rally and march in Melbourne  in solidarity with your mobilisation in Washington. We wish you every success.

Venceremos!, 

Peter Murray, For the Freedom Socialist Party, Melbourne, AUSTRALIA

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Dear US Fighters for Reproductive Freedom

The Australian section of Radical Women stands with you in your 12 November mobilisation for choice in Washington DC.

The war over abortion rights that is taking place in the US has brought home to us all too clearly that our reproductive freedom will never be permanently secure while patriarchal capitalism continues to flourish!

We all understand how very important the current fight against the roll back of abortion rights is and we urge you to take up the fight in its full context. We must truly fight for the right to choose. 

In this country that means we need free quality 24 hour childcare, lesbians must have access to donor insemination programs, and we must prevent the use of Depo Provera on Aboriginal women and disabled women. And all women must have incomes which make deciding to bear a child a realistic choice.

Radical Women is one of the organisations involved in the Campaign For Women’s Reproductive Rights. On 11 November we are organising a rally and march in solidarity with your march on Washington. Radical Women [Australia] is with you in spirit in Washington DC.

Yours in solidarity, Alison Thorne, Radical Women Organiser, Melbourne Australia

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Dear 12 November March on Washington Organisers

The Campaign For Women’s Reproductive Rights in Australia is organising a rally in Melbourne on 11 November in solidarity with the struggle to defend and extend abortion rights and reproductive freedom in the United States.

We are also marching to defeat the right wing in Australia and their attempt to cut health insurance coverage for abortion. If successful, their move would mean many poor and working class women would no longer have the right to choose an abortion.

A private members bill, with anti-abortionist support, to cut Medicare funding is yet to be debated in parliament. We hope to have a large militant demonstration and push the ‘Right to Life’ back into their shells.

We aim to show our solidarity with your struggle which is the struggle of the working class and oppressed people throughout the world.

Yours in solidarity, Campaign For Women’s Reproductive Rights, Melbourne Australia

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