On a Tuesday afternoon in December, as thousands of city workers were heading for their trams and trains, a speakout was in full swing outside Melbourne’s Town Hall. Campaign for Women’s Reproductive Rights’ bold purple banner demanded “ Free abortion on demand Now!” Radical Women (RW) placards said “ Make Melbourne a Free Speech City.” A Melbourne Leader photographer was taking photos. Passers by stopped to watch and listen.
What turns an abortion rights struggle into a free speech fight? An agency of the State using laws to threaten and penalise grassroots organising, that’s what. Since the beginning of 2010, Melbourne City Council has been enforcing local laws against reproductive justice activists who defend the Fertility Control Clinic in East Melbourne against anti-abortion zealots. For almost five years, without any interference from the Council, the activists kept the clinic area safe from the Helpers of God’ s Precious Infants, who stalk and harangue any woman who walks past. But in February last year, Melbourne City Council stepped in.
First, the Council threatened to confiscate the defenders’ megaphones, claiming that the amplification levels were too high and they had received complaints — even though the vicinity is non-residential. When the clinic defenders didn’t back down, the Council then issued a Notice to Comply for the banner which, it insists, breaches the local law against “erecting an advertising sign or other thing.” “ Noncompliance” can result in fines of up to $1,250.
The Council made its initial strike against the defenders when the “40 Days for Life” made its first foray into Australia in February 2010. This U.S.-based annual event, aimed at harassing abortion providers, expanded into other countries, and the Fertility Control Clinic was one of its three Australian targets. The clinic defenders mobilised for possible trouble from the fanatics.
The Notice to Comply came in October, just after a successful abortion rights rally in Melbourne. It was organised by RW and clinic defence allies as part of a nationwide day of action on October 9 to support a young couple in Cairns, Queensland who faced trial on abortion charges under Queensland’ s 19th century Criminal Code. The day of action was the second anniversary of Victoria’s abortion decriminalisation, legislated in 2008. Melbourne’ s demonstration also countered the launch of a rightwing campaign to overturn the new laws. Shouting “Back to the backyard, No Way!,” the abortion rights forces drowned out the woman-haters who vowed to increase their pressure on the East Melbourne clinic.
As the abortion wars intensify in Victoria, in other Australian states and around the world, Melbourne City Council aims its laws at those fighting for women’s right to choose. Whilet claims to be an even-handed enforcer — giving warnings to the anti- abortion harassers for leaving their placards on the footpath — the point is that no one should be penalised for exercising their right to free speech and protest. What must not be tolerated is the harassment of women and clinic workers by these anti-choice bigots. Yet decades of this has been allowed to go on. If it weren’t for the stalking and incidents of violence, a clinic defence wouldn’ t be necessary. To remove the anti-abortion menace, a strong reproductive justice movement needs to be built — and this requires our organising in the streets.
The December rally for abortion rights and free speech, held outside Melbourne Town Hall, launched a campaign to force Melbourne City Council to withdraw its Notice to Comply, adhere to its obligations under Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities to uphold the rights to protest and free speech, and stop its actions against the clinic defenders. Organisations and individuals are signing onto a statement with these demands, which will be delivered to the Council. RW and clinic defenders are also preparing a legal challenge, supported by the Fitzroy Legal Service.
Free speech and the right to protest are crucial to winning reproductive justice — from free abortion services to childcare, paid parental leave, equal pay, housing, health, education and everything a woman needs to make real choices. They are vital for all people needing to fight for change — as women, queers, unionists, young people, elders, people with disabilities, people imprisoned, everyone! We cannot let the State dictate how we organise!
If you agree and want to get involved, here are things you can do right now:
- Sign the statement to Melbourne City Council, distribute it and get others to sign
- Join the campaign
- Donate toward the campaigning costs
- Join the clinic defence on the fourth Saturday of every month
For information and a copy of the statement, contact Radical Women: 03-9388 0062 or email@example.com
“As a feminist activist and union delegate, but primarily as a woman, I fully support this campaign. The rights to free abortion on demand and to organise and protest are fundamental to gender equality and freedom of choice. Denying this is tantamount to state control and violation. We must keep fighting for these entitlements, because they could easily be taken away from us at any time.”
Alison Barton is a workplace delegate for the Australian Services Union.
“It is essential that clinic defences by Radical Women continue to stop harassment by groups committed to all ways of restricting women’s access to abortion services. A major public hospital that provides high-standard services to women seeking terminations once experienced harassment so intolerable that it took out a court order, which keeps anti- abortionists on the opposite side of the road.”
Bethia Stevenson is a retired head of a social work department at a Melbourne hospital for women.
“The Queensland Council for Civil Liberties was born out of the Right to March Movement in Queensland in the ‘60s. The Council fully supports your right to protest peacefully outside the Fertility Control Clinic in East Melbourne and condemns any attempt by the Melbourne City Council to prevent you from exercising your legitimate right to freedom of speech, including by the use of a banner.”
Michael Cope, President on behalf of the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties.