Overturn of Roe v Wade sharpens battle lines in Australia

Join the fight for reproductive justice

A rally in Melbourne in solidarity with U.S. reproductive justice protestors. Photo: Radical Women - Australia
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The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling to wipe out half a century of federally protected abortion rights set the whole country ablaze with protest. Thousands in New York, Seattle, San Francisco and Phoenix united in militant actions led by the Radical Women-initiated National Mobilization for Reproductive Justice. Their rallying cry, “Unjust laws will be broken!,” captured the mood nationwide.

This outrage wasn’t confined to the United States. People took to the streets across Europe, the U.K. and Australia. In Melbourne alone, 15,000 came out in solidarity. Such unity comes from shared struggle. In Australia, abortion has no federal protection. The state by state fight for decriminalisation has been gruellingly long, and victories are relatively new — South Australia’s as recent as 2021. Abortion is still in the Criminal Code. of Western Australia.

Despite the legal reforms, abortion is inaccessible for many. In some jurisdictions, cut-off times for surgical abortion are low, such as 16 weeks in the Australian Capital Territory. Everywhere, it’s costly — hundreds of dollars for medical and thousands for surgical terminations. For people on temporary visas, ineligibility for Medicare puts abortion out of reach. Other barriers exist, from government underfunding and private insurers’ long waiting lists (some as long as a year) to anti-abortion doctors refusing to refer to a provider or pharmacists to provide a medical abortion drug. Plus there’s the “postcode lottery” caused by providers being few and far between.

As soon as Victoria’s Parliament voted through its reform on 10 October 2008, anti-abortionists started working on its repeal. Every October since 2009, far-right Member of Parliament Bernie Finn has organised a march on Parliament, naming it the “March for the Babies.” This past May, Finn seized on the leaked Supreme Court opinion to declare that all abortions should be banned — signalling that an emboldened anti-abortion movement will launch a new assault. This year’s anti-abortion march — a month before Victoria’s election — is sure to be a major event.

A foetus ain’t a baby. A popular abortion rights chant goes like this: “An egg is not a chicken, a seed is not a tree, a foetus ain’t a baby. So don’t lay that on me!” The misogynistic intention of the anti-abortion movement in calling a foetus a baby is to negate the rights of the pregnant person; they become nothing more than incubators.

A person’s behaviour during pregnancy, such as substance use, becomes judged and monitored, even criminalised. “Foetal assault” laws exist in 38 U.S. states, and in the last 15 years alone, 1,200 women have been prosecuted. Where a fertilised egg is granted “personhood,” as two U.S. states have done and three Australian states have attempted, its rights override those of the real person carrying it.

To then criminalise abortion obliterates any vestige of bodily autonomy. Its dire consequences were immediately evident in the couple of months following the overturn of Roe v Wade. “Trigger laws” in 13 U.S. states, made in anticipation of the ruling, enabled bans to go into effect as soon as the decision came down. Another 12 are expected to move quickly. Within a month, clinics closed — such as the “Pink House,” the only service remaining in the trigger state of Mississippi. In states where judges have issued restraining orders to block a ban, abortion’s legal status is left in limbo. Providers’ fear of criminal prosecution has led to lengthy delays. Desperate women and girls, including a 10-year-old rape victim, are travelling to states where abortion is protected. In Nebraska a woman and her 18-year-old daughter face charges for aborting the teenager’s pregnancy and burying the foetus.

Anti-abortionists have no problem with this unbearable situation. Their answer is simple: adopt. ABC Radio National listeners in Australia recently heard a jaw-dropping interview with the founder of Safe Haven Baby Boxes in the U.S. This “pro-life” (sic) service lets women anonymously deposit their unwanted newborns. “Drop boxes” are installed at fire stations and hospitals around the country.

When the economy calls. Behind all the moralistic chest and bible thumping, to rationalise the ripping away of half the population’s fundamental rights, lies its economic reason. Women in control of their bodies and their life choices would destroy the profit system.

And who knows this better than a federal Treasurer during an economic crisis. Twenty years ago, then Treasurer Peter Costello implored women to have three kids — “one for Mum, one for Dad and one for the country.” Neoliberalism was in full swing. We now have an extreme polarisation of wealth, and the crisis of capital hasn’t lessened. In 2020 women were told again, this time by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, to “have more children for the good of the economy.” Australia’s budget deficit was the biggest since World War II. “Population growth is the lowest since 1916!,” he exclaimed.

Women reproduce the workers who produce the profit. They then socialise their children for a life of wage slavery while keeping the workforce in working order — feeding, clothing, soothing, chauffeuring, cleaning, nursing, crisis managing and so much more. Marx called this the “social reproduction of labour.” What’s more, it’s free, at no cost to capital.

When Costello was calling on women to breed more, Health Minister Tony Abbott was attempting to block the abortion pill, RU486, and gut Medicare funding for abortion. Frydenberg’s exhortation and the next assault on abortion rights aren’t far apart.

Reproductive justice for all. “Reproductive justice” (RJ) is a term coined in 1994 by Black women in the United States. Sistersong, Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective defines RJ as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”

Some of the Radical Women team in action at the huge abortion rights rally in Melbourne on 2 July. Photo by Alison Thorne.

This covers the spectrum of interconnected issues, from sex education to contraception and birthing; free healthcare and education to housing; secure employment to equal pay and free childcare; safe schools, workplaces and streets for trans, queer and people of colour; an end to sexist and racist policing; climate justice and much more. This multi-issue perspective, of which abortion is a part, is unifying because it addresses everyone’s reproductive needs.

Bodily autonomy is a common struggle, but in a system that’s so transphobic and homophobic, anti-disability and anti-poor, racist and xenophobic, it’s much harder for some than others. For queer, First Nations, disabled, homeless, imprisoned and migrant women and for trans, gender diverse and nonbinary people, pervasive violence, countless hurdles and utter exclusion are everyday struggles. Sterilisation without consent, removal of children, precarious housing, obstetric violence, relentless abuse and lack of appropriate services and supports are just some. All this puts their reproductive health at risk and magnifies the stress and exhaustion of caring for families and loved ones.

Full reproductive justice for First Nations women must mean ending historical genocide. Birthing on Country, community control of reproductive and other health services and an end to child removal are as critical as stopping racial profiling by police — which imprisons Aboriginal women (80% are mothers) at faster, higher rates than non-Aboriginal women — and deaths in custody.

Fight for it! The cloud over abortion also hangs over the general rights of LGBTIQA+ and other folks. When the Supreme Court struck down Roe v Wade, rightwing Justice Clarence Thomas indicated that rulings enshrining other civil rights, like marriage equality, should also be questioned.

Memories of the battle for marriage equality are still fresh. In an environment of reaction, such as now, we can bet that the forces for “family values” haven’t put their knives away, and they’re waiting to strike again. Conservative Anglican bishops’ recent split from the church over the issue could signal the preparation for a new fight. Similarly, Australia’s Religious Freedom Bill, shelved in February this year, can be reactivated any time. Rightwing forces are poised to put it back on the table.

A controversy like the recent drama over Manly Sea Eagles players’ refusal to wear their team’s new Pride jersey, arguing religious grounds, could be a trigger. If ever enacted, religious bigotry of any form — racist, anti-disability, sexist, transphobic, homophobic or anything else — would be protected in law. Religious institutions already have exemptions from discrimination laws which they use. Virgil, a Catholic school in Tasmania, recently rescinded a job offer based on the teacher’s personal living arrangement.

Reproductive justice provides a basis for grassroots unity with the power to fight off these assaults and move on toward liberation. Its militancy would come from the leadership of those most abused by this patriarchal, white, cis supremacist system — whose lives would be most transformed by victories and, ultimately, freedom.

This can start on October 8 at Melbourne’s March for the Babies. Liz Walsh, Victorian Socialists’ electoral candidate for the Western Metropolitan Region, put out the call for a counteraction. Walsh is running against Bernie Finn and anti-abortion, transphobic Liberal candidate, Moira Deeming. Radical Women has initiated a reproductive justice contingent with demands for federally legislated free, safe, legal abortion on demand and the array of reproductive needs of those most under attack.

To join in organising and building the contingent or find out more, get in touch with Radical Women: rw.aus@radicalwomen.org.

Let’s start preparing a reproductive justice offensive. The generations of protesters across Australia, who came out in solidarity with reproductive freedom fighters across the U.S., made it very clear they meant business. By standing together and defending each other, we would show these cocky patriarchs that they can’t mess with us.