Reproductive Rights: Report from the trenches in the ongoing war on women’s autonomy

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Outside Melbourne’s Fertility Control Clinic, a large banner that reads “Women will decide their fate!” stretches along the street. Placards call for free, 24-hour childcare, employer-funded paid maternity leave and equal pay for women. People shout, “Right to Life your name’s a lie, you don’t care if women die.” This is the defence cordon organised by Campaign for Women’s Reproductive Rights (CWRR) on a Saturday morning each month when Helpers of God’s Precious Infants congregate to harass clinic staff and women using the service.

These fanatics appear with their statue of Mary, rosaries and grisly pictures of dead infants misrepresented as fetuses. One of them videos the clinic defenders and anyone entering or leaving. Since mid 2005, pro-choice activists have kept the zealots well away from the medical facility, separated by a wide, busy street. On two occasions, the fetus worshippers were too frightened by our numbers to even show up!

The Fertility Control Clinic (FCC) has been the target of anti-abortionists since it opened in 1973. In 2001, a man who stormed the crowded waiting room and threatened to blow the place up murdered a security guard. Every weekday morning, Right to Lifers stand at the entrance, abusing women as they go in. Established by Dr Bertram Wainer as Australia’s first abortion clinic, the FCC is today the only one to perform terminations after 12 weeks.

Fetus fetish. The right wing chooses abortion as their frontline offensive to keep women in their place — in a straitjacket of domestic servitude. A 1969 court ruling by Justice Menhennit allowed terminations in Victoria if a medical panel decides that carrying a pregnancy endangers a woman’s mental or physical health. That judgement still stands. Jo Wainer’s recently published book, Lost: Illegal Abortion Stories, relates the personal stories of working class women dealing with unplanned pregnancies before Menhennit. Their accounts give a clear, very chilling, look inside the cruelty of a society which, less than 40 years ago, punished sex outside marriage, forbade birth control against the husband’s wishes and gave women no option but the backyard abortionist or the coathanger.

What’s an effective way to take from women all control over how they’ll live their lives? Call a fetus a baby. Create the myth that it’s a living person and then give it rights above the woman’s.

Abracadabra! She is recast into a breeding machine and homemaker. She’s removed from the world she

could have known — and influenced! — as an independent, active player.

The right wing is hell-bent on turning back the clock. Its battle to stop access to Mifepristone (RU486), a drug that chemically induces abortion, was as vehement as its sustained attacks on abortion clinics. The drug has been unavailable in Australia since 1996. An amendment to the Therapeutic Goods Act, introduced that year by anti-abortionist Senator Brian Harradine and supported by the Australian Labor Party and Western Australian Greens Senator Christabel Chamarette, succeeded in giving veto powers over its importation to the Minister for Health. The current Minister is Tony Abbott, dedicated “family values” patriarch and anti-choice campaigner.

In October 2005, when the Democrats initiated a private member’s bill to return discretionary power to the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), the right wing went into a frenzy. A sensation-loving media spread statistical fabrications pumped out by the likes of the Australians Against RU486 — headed by Abbott’s former media adviser. Supposed links to cancer, mental illness and mysterious deaths in the United States were cited to head off the campaign against the medicine. Liberal MP, Dana Vale, even pulled the racist card when she warned that Muslims would overrun the country if the drug were let in. Thankfully, a pro-choice, cross-party parliamentary alliance, led by women and responding to feminists across the country, overturned the ban in February this year. The TGA has since cleared the drug as safe, exposing the right wing’s lies. The next obstacles are red tape and profit gouging that make it too hard for practitioners to import the drug.

Equally ominous is Tony Abbott’s stacking of the Australian Health Ethics Committee with his fellow religious moralists. Almost half of the members now have links with Catholic organisations. Some have already voiced their opposition to the use of embryonic cells for stem cell research, and Medicare funding for abortions will certainly become another battleground.

Spot the fake pregnancy counsellor. Immediately following its defeat over RU486, the Howard Government approved $60 million for abortion “counselling,” which will include a 24-hour hotline.

The Australian Federation of Pregnancy Support Services, the peak body of all anti-abortion services, has received funding from the government for the past decade, and it is expected to be the beneficiary of these new funds. There is also a move by anti-abortion parliamentarians to tie Medicare funding for abortions to compulsory viewing of ultrasounds and pictures of fetuses in development.

Women’s experiences in the United States give a good idea of what to expect. The Bush Administration has pumped millions of dollars into such centres, which, according to The New York Times, outnumber actual abortion providers. In Indiana, a young woman attending an appointment at a Planned Parenthood clinic mistakenly walked into a “crisis pregnancy centre” which shares the same parking lot. It’s common for these operators to locate themselves next to a genuine provider for this purpose. The young woman gave her personal details, and the centre then harassed her for days — going to her school, phoning her father’s workplace and showing up at her home to pressure her not to have an abortion. This conduct is documented as typical. These centres also give misinformation about the termination procedure, claiming it to be painful and life threatening with long-term emotional and physical effects. Women have reported similar deception in Australian centres run by Right to Life.

The hidden battles. Since a burst of public debate in 2004 about childcare and paid maternity leave, these pivotal issues have gone underground. The gutting of affordable, available childcare and lack of a national paid maternity leave scheme are the silent offensive against women’s reproductive rights.

Australia and the United States stand out as the only industrialised countries without a universal entitlement to paid maternity leave. This puts us behind most of the planet — 120 countries, to be exact. In Australia, 60% of working women have no paid maternity leave, and this will drop further as Australian Workplace Agreements kick in. New mothers get only a maternity payment from Centrelink of around $4,000 — hardly enough to cover the nappies!

Employers in Australia claim they can’t afford it. Yet Singapore, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Lebanon are just some countries that provide employer-funded schemes covering working mothers’ full earnings. By paying a levy based on the number of employees (women and men), into a publicly managed fund, all employers would be able to meet the costs.

Without paid maternity leave, 60% of working women are in an impossible situation: they can’t afford childcare, and without childcare, they can’t afford to work. Approximately 160,000 mothers want to work but are unable to.

Earning only two-thirds of the take-home pay of men, most women cannot make genuine, independent choices about their lives. Having children means economic dependence, either on a partner or social security. Equal pay, childcare and paid maternity leave are vital to a woman’s decisions about if or when she’ll have children, and how many. These questions cannot be separated from the fight for freely accessible abortion.

Racist, homophobic, anti-poor. The Blue Mountains Family Support Service in Katoomba, New South Wales put out a plea on behalf of refugee women placed on a Bridging Visa E, which denies them access to Medicare, Centrelink payments or employment. Pregnant women have contacted the service, because routine tests or safe deliveries are impossible for them unless they pay the medical expenses upfront. A public hospital stay of one or two days costs $3,000 – $4,000. If there is a complication, the fees can escalate to $10,000.

A recent report by Kerry Arabena, Chair of the ACT Health Promotion Board, exposed how Indigenous women are denied reproductive choice. As long as paternalistic government institutions have power over Aboriginal communities, women have no autonomy. For example, for a young, pregnant woman, says Arabena, “it is unlikely that she has accessed any quality sexual health education, and cannot access pregnancy testing kits that are readily available in pharmacies across Australia, except by asking someone in authority to provide one to her in a clinical setting.” She also cannot use internet or phone counselling services that would enable her to make a decision. To perpetuate the dispossession of Australia’s first nations, stripping Aboriginal women of their reproductive rights has been crucial to the overall genocidal policies of the past 220 years.

Women who are lesbian, single, poor, older or with a disability still can’t freely access Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART). In Victoria, access to donor insemination is limited to married or de facto heterosexual couples, unless a woman is clinically infertile. Eligibility for in vitro fertilisation (IVF) has been opened to lesbians and single women, but only if they are “medically infertile.” Lesbian and gay couples in Victoria cannot adopt children. The laws governing access to ART and adoption are currently being reviewed. But the recent homophobic hype set off by Sydney’s Daily Telegraph over storybooks that feature same-sex parents was a reminder of the right wing’s capacity for hysteria whenever its happy family ideal is threatened by progress. The portrayal of joyful preschoolers, loved by two-mum parents and having fun in their Rainbow Cubby house, sent the vigilantes ballistic. The homophobia, fanned by NSW Premier Morris Iemma, was quickly answered by a protest rally outside the State Parliament.

And what welfare mum isn’t victimised by the Howard Government’s Welfare-to-Work laws? Single mothers, so long demonised as parasites, are now being financially punished. By November 2008, the government will force approximately 111,000 sole parents and 60,000 disability pensioners onto the more miserly unemployment benefit. The majority are mothers.

Reproductive rights unite struggles everywhere! Throughout most of human history, society was based on shared wealth and cooperation. Women were revered for their reproductive powers and looked to as the leaders who kept production humming and relations harmonious. The capacity to produce beyond daily needs led to the fragmenting of production and elevation of certain people over everyone else. Class divisions and privatisation then came into being. Women were thus reduced to property. They, their wombs and their children became prized possessions, for fathers or husbands to own but ultimately for the ruling class to control and profit from.

Another chant outside the Fertility Control Clinic is “Not the Church, Not the State. Women Will Decide their Fate!” This is a favourite, because it’s revolutionary. Once women again independently control our reproduction, we’ll have won a different world. This fight to win back women’s independence is itself making the change and belongs to everybody battered and used by this profit system.

In the United States, the State of South Dakota recently banned abortions. Immediately, Cecilia Fire Thunder, President of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council, announced that she would set up an abortion clinic, open to all women. Because of historical treaties between the U.S. Government and First Nations, the Pine Ridge Reservation is outside the jurisdiction of the State Government. Fire Thunder put reproductive rights in a nutshell: “Ultimately, this is a much bigger issue than just abortion. It’s time for women to reclaim their bodies.”

The victory around Mifepristone and the pledge by the Victorian ALP Government to decriminalise abortion, at last, are milestones, although we’ll probably have to organise to keep the ALP to its word. Legal wins, important as they are, are not permanent. Roe vs Wade, the historic ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973, has been methodically dismantled by a well-organised, corporate-bankrolled right wing. Only a massive, well-organised, multi-issue, integral, grassroots movement can bring on the change. Imagine a defence line outside the Fertility Control Clinic with contingents of queers, students, unionists, Indigenous people, refugees, single mums and disability rights activists! That’s a start. These movements, working together, need to put reproductive rights centre-stage. Imagine again: the union movement organising for childcare and paid maternity leave, the end to welfare-to-work and abortion on demand — and ready to stop work!

Fire Thunder is now under attack for her stand. We need a bold movement to follow her example and stand with her.

Defend the Fertility Control Clinic!

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