On April 16, 2009 a 19-year-old woman was charged under Queensland’s Criminal Code for procuring her own abortion. Her 21-year-old partner was charged for importing Mifipristone (RU486), a drug widely used in 35 other countries to induce a miscarriage. Their case, already adjourned three times, is set for hearing in July. If convicted, they face up to seven years’ imprisonment.
Backward, this certainly is. The Criminal Code dates from 1899 – 110 years. The sections relating to abortion come straight from English law, going back to 1861! It also smacks of a concerted backlash. This is the first time in at least 50 years that a woman has been charged in Australia for having an abortion. In Queensland, this is the first abortion-related prosecution since two doctors were tried in 1986.
As in other states, abortion in Queensland is available under restrictive guidelines. The 1986 ruling in the two doctors’ trial has allowed a termination if a pregnancy endangers a woman’s physical or mental health. The Australian Capital Territory and Victoria are the only places in the country where abortion has been decriminalised (in 2002 and 2008 respectively).
Anna Bligh the contortionist.
The Queensland Premier stands by the prosecutions – defying her own party, the Australian Labor Party, which reaffirmed at its state conference in June that the archaic laws must be repealed. Twisting logic beyond recognition, Bligh argues that the issue is the illegal importation of a drug. If that’s so, why are the couple being prosecuted under the anti-abortion laws?
Unfortunately, the cynical ruse is having an effect. Three years ago, despite much kicking and screaming from anti-abortionists, the authorisation to import RU486 was taken out of the hands of the anti-choice federal Health Minister, Tony Abbott, and given to the medical professionals of the Therapeutic Goods Administration. Fifty-three doctors across the country are now registered to import and prescribe the drug. This more popular form of abortion is expected to quadruple this year.
However, Queensland’s antiquated laws do not cover “medical” (as opposed to the traditional surgical) abortion. The case against the couple prompted two doctors in the state’s far north – the first authorised to use RU486 – to stop prescribing the drug. Government ministers have ignored their repeated requests for legal clarification, and the doctors fear the risk of prosecution, both of themselves and their patients. This could also mean that practitioners in other states, where laws haven’t yet been brought into the 21st century, face a similar threat.
Queensland’s legislators only have to bring the state’s abortion laws into line with what most of the population thinks: that abortion should be available for every woman who chooses this option. All the ALP has to do is direct its parliamentary members to vote according to party policy, as it does on all other issues – no “conscience vote.”
So what’s the problem? Victoria’s recent experience points to the likely reason. Every obstacle imaginable was put in the path of decriminalisation. The Brumby ALP government, like its predecessors, felt beholden to the vocal and powerful anti-choice minority. Abortion decriminalisation finally won only because of tenacious campaigning, principally by grassroots activists and, to some extent, by pro-choicers within parliament. Even then, the Brumby government – resisting popular pressure to the end – chose the option of putting a bill to legalise abortion up to 24 weeks over the alternative of covering all stages of pregnancy.
Despite decriminalisation, Melbourne’s two main abortion providers are hounded relentlessly by religious fanatics. This past March, Youth 4 Life held a 10-day “revelation tour,” harrassing clinics from Sydney to Melbourne.
The Catholic Church is preparing to challenge Victoria’s law reform, claiming that it breaches the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which enshrines the freedom of conscience. The new law requires an anti-choice doctor to refer a woman seeking an abortion to another health provider. In the United States, religious healthcare providers have used the same “conscientious objection” argument to find a legal way to refuse requests for abortions, reproductive technology and birth control. Several states have enacted a “conscience clause,” allowing pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for the emergency contraception because of “moral objections.” Before leaving the White House, George W Bush extended the clause to cover health professionals who don’t want to perform abortions.
Cleaning up after capitalism’s mess.
Opponents to women’s rights are not only religious, as Brumby, Bligh et al show. What is really behind the drive to return women to the home is the profit system. More than ever, it needs women to breed more workers and replace the rapidly disappearing support services, from childcare to aged care. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has told women to wait longer for paid maternity leave – because, he says, the economy can’t afford it. Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard recently declared that the government is not interested in running childcare. But it’s prepared to subsidise the private entrepreneurs – the same people who advocate a pay cut for childcare workers, arguing that the economy has gone broke!
Many working class women are forced out of the workforce, due to the lack of decent maternity leave or because they can’t find affordable childcare. Without these essential rights, women end up poorer with career prospects dashed.
Time to take the offensive! The assassination in June of Dr George Tiller, Wichita Kansas abortion rights champion, was an outrageous reminder that the anti-abortion movement is capable of mayhem and murder – whatever it takes to put women “back in their place.” As the economy crashes, these far-right forces get bolder – blaming single mothers, independent women, queers, immigrants, people of colour and the unemployed for society’s troubles. In Queensland, violence in another form – a political show trial – is being done by respectable legal enforcers.
Let’s trounce the bigots, once and for all, through a massive, broad-based movement – powerful enough to enforce the majority’s belief that a woman must be able to make crucial decisions about the direction of her life. Visible, militant, multi-coloured, multi-issue community organising is what has won just about every gain of working people. Only this can end the violence, win our rights and defend our victories.
Radical Women calls on feminists to join together to build a united front capable of stopping the right wing and winning survival needs such as full reproductive rights, affordable housing, childcare and education, free healthcare, decent paying jobs, expanded human services and an end to imperialist war. If you are interested in collaborating on this kind of effort, contact Radical Women at firstname.lastname@example.org or 03-9388-0062.
Pro-choice activists in Queensland are campaigning to drop the charges and decriminalise abortion. For information or to get a copy of the petition, the Pro-Choice Action Collective can be contacted at email@example.com. Or get in touch with Radical Women.