Reproductive rights coalition leads offensive against anti-woman onslaught

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Melbourne, 8 July 2005. A Right-to-Lifer is forced to negotiate a coathanger blockade as pro-choice demonstrators chant “Get your morals off our bodies!” Photo by Lachie Mason.

On June 30, 120,000 unionists marched with banners and umbrellas through the centre of Melbourne. Working people — old, young, women, men, queer, straight, of many colours and many pushing prams — choked the main streets to protest the Howard Government’s plans to destroy the union movement and drive down living conditions. Among them were activists in the Campaign for Women’s Reproductive Rights (CWRR) handing out leaflets for a rally on July 30.

The leaflet states: “Howard’s mission to roll back women’s reproductive rights would also rob them of their freedom to be economically independent and decide whether and when to have children. Paid maternity leave, free childcare, access to reproductive technology and abortion on demand are key issues in the battle for jobs, wages, conditions and the right to be in a union.” This sparked a lot of interest.

Female face of the working poor. Sixty-seven percent of women are in the workforce, mostly in part-time and casual jobs. In August 2004, they took home $300 less per week than men. Government support for mothers has been stripped back to practically nothing. Single mums on a parenting payment will soon be subjected to a strict “welfare-to-work” regime as soon as their first child turns six. First-time mothers receive a maternity payment of around $3,000 from Centrelink. Compare this to the billions of PAYE (pay as you earn) tax dollars spent on corporate welfare!

By 2004, the absence of a national paid maternity leave scheme and affordable, available childcare became a public disgrace. CWRR revived a similarly named campaign from the late ’80s and early ’90s which defeated efforts by righwing parliamentarians to remove Medicare funding for abortion procedures. CWRR’s predecessor was feisty and effective, connecting reproductive freedom with the unfinished fight for women’s equal pay.

Radical Women (RW), which had been active in the early CWRR, initiated a coalition of unionists, feminists and socialists that organised a rally in August for paid maternity leave and free 24-hour childcare. Speakers from the Victorian Trades Hall Council, Fertility Access Rights Lobby, International Women’s Day Collective and RW linked the union, queer, feminist and socialist movements in a battle for these fundamental rights.

Reproductive freedom is for everybody. A petition campaign followed. The re-election of Howard in October that year brought on a renewed attack on abortion rights, led by Health Minister Tony Abbott and joined by the religious right wing. Abortion is a crime in most of Australia. The procedure is available only under circumstances outlined in court rulings in each state. Victoria’s 1969 Menhennitt ruling allows a woman to have an abortion if two doctors declare that her health is endangered. Abortion is also expensive, even with the Medicare subsidy. CWRR’s petition added free, safe abortion on demand to the calls for childcare and an employer-funded paid maternity leave scheme. This multi-issue approach to a multi-pronged onslaught against women attracted support from around the country. Unions, student organisations, women’s health centres, refuges and individual activists took the petition far and wide. At a May Day rally this year in Melbourne’s working class, multicultural suburb of Coburg, CWRR handed over more than 2,000 signatures to Federal MP for Wills, Kelvin Thomson.

In early July CWRR rallied, on short notice, 50 pro-choice activists to protest the presence of Right to Life at Melbourne University. People paying $60 for dinner and a speech by Queensland Senator and anti-abortionist Barnaby Joyce, had to unceremoniously crouch under a barricade of coathangers that blocked the entrance — as protesters chanted “Right to Life, your name’s a lie. You don’t care if women die.”

Our bodies, our lives and our right to decide! During the petition campaign, CWRR came across so many women who said that its demands addressed their own multiple battles. The lack of paid maternity leave and childcare, and often badly timed pregnancies, gave them no choice but to give up their jobs or education and stay home.

Women will be able to make genuine life choices, instead of being treated as human incubators, only when they are economically independent and in control of our own bodies. Howard’s attacks on unions, the welfare entitlements of sole parents and people with disabilities, and women’s reproductive rights have made the struggles for women harder than ever.

We need a massive movement of women and men who make these links. CWRR continues to build on the momentum of working people’s readiness to fight back. A rally for reproductive rights on July 30, in the heart of Melbourne, is endorsed and supported by unionists, single mothers, queers and disability rights activists determined not to let parliamentary and religious patriarchs push women back into domestic dependency and backyard abortions. The demands are:

  • free, safe abortion on demand
  • free, safe access for all women to reproductive technology
  • free, quality 24-hour childcare
  • employer-funded paid maternity leave for all women
  • a living wage for women on the parenting payment, free from penalties and coercion
  • equal pay, equal employment opportunity and secure jobs for women.

Join in! The time for fighting back is now. CWRR meets on the first Tuesday of each month, 6.30 pm at Solidarity Salon, 580 Sydney Road, Brunswick. To contact CWRR, phone 03-9388-0062 or email radical.women.melb@bigpond.com

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