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 spring session of Parliament. The bill proposes that there be only two grounds on which a woman can obtain the Medicare rebate for an abortion. The first: if the doctor hadn’t performed the abortion on the woman, “the woman would, in the doctor’s opinion, have died.” The second: 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 does not 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 — protesting both the Harradine Bill and the attacks on reproductive rights in the United States.

From the start, this Melbourne grouping insisted on the need to organise around reproductive rights rather than a single-issue approach exclusively around abortion. 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 parent benefits, may be forced into continuing unwanted pregnancies or into do-it-yourself methods or backyard 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 Medicare bulk-billing.”

In the wake of the 12 August action, the need for an ongoing 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 called the Democratic Socialist Party) was one of the many organisations that participated in the founding of CWRR. One of their members proposed that CWRR organise a major rally on 11 November in solidarity with U.S. 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 on 16 and 17 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 attendees 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 feminist 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 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 childcare 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 U.S. to stop the rollbacks and gain access to abortion for all women in every state of the Union that on the other side of the world, people are organising in solidarity.

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