Drop the abortion charges! Repeal all anti-abortion laws!

By Kathy Newnam

On April 16, a young couple faced court in Cairns on charges brought against them under the anti-abortion provisions in the Queensland Criminal Code (sections 224, 225 and 226). A 19-year-old woman faces seven years imprisonment for allegedly using an abortion drug from overseas to terminate a pregnancy while her 21-year-old male partner faces three years imprisonment for allegedly providing her with the abortion drug. It is the first time in at least 50 years that a woman has been charged in Australia for having an abortion. The case will be heard next month.

The strength of the women’s liberation movement led to the liberal interpretation of the anti-abortion laws in a 1986 court ruling in Queensland — which allowed for “lawful” abortion if a woman’s life is at risk by continuing a pregnancy. It is under this interpretation of the law that abortion is legally accessible in Queensland. This ruling was also very clear in not granting “abortion on demand” to women wishing to terminate their pregnancy. The laws that criminalise abortion have remained an ever present threat to abortion rights — a threat that has now been realised. Abortion was decriminalised in the ACT in 2002 and Victoria in 2008, but the Queensland government has maintained that it will not follow suit. In response to the charges against the Cairns couple, Attorney General Cameron Dick told the media on April 22 that “the Bligh government currently has no intention to change the legislation in this area”.

Still a crime

For decades, Labor politicians and their allies in the women’s liberation movement have argued that it is better not to “rock the boat” by demanding the removal of abortion from the criminal code, as this might lead to the overturning of the limited access to abortion granted by court rulings. They have repeatedly claimed that abortion has, for all intents and purposes, been “decriminalised”. The charging of the Cairns couple has well and truly “rocked the boat” and the complicity of Queensland Premier Anna Bligh’s Labor government in their charging has exposed the utter falsity of the idea that there is no need to remove abortion from the criminal code. While these charges represent the most serious attack on access to abortion for many decades, the fact is that the laws against “illegal” pregnancy termination are continually used as a weapon to limit access to abortion.

Currently, South Australia is the only state where women can access free bulk-billed abortion. In other states, the cost of abortion has risen sharply over recent years. In Queensland, the cost of an abortion ranges from around $260 up-front (for concession holders in Brisbane) to $810 in Cairns for abortions under 12 weeks of pregnancy. The costs for abortion rise steeply every two weeks after 12 weeks of gestation. Only $260 is available on the Medicare rebate — around $100 less than comparable operations.

The anti-abortion laws help promote the false idea that abortion is “murder” — a thoroughly unscientific idea based on the theological belief that a fetus is a person. This idea is used to create a social stigma around abortion in order to make women feel ashamed about having an abortion, putting moral pressure on those who do to “keep it to themselves”. Abortion is treated as a highly personal issue — despite the fact that it is one of the most commonly performed surgical procedures in the country and one third of women will have an abortion at some time in their lives.

The social stigma surrounding abortion creates a barrier to the realisation that the restrictions on abortion are highly political, aimed at restricting the ability of women to control their own bodies. The capitalist rulers promote the idea that women’s primary social role is to be mothers and carers. This is absolutely critical for upholding the profit system — as the costs of rearing the next generation of workers and caring for elderly and sick workers are placed on individual family units, rather than on the capitalist ruling class. In Australia, this unpaid housework has been estimated to be equivalent to more than 50% of GDP, making it absolutely essential for the maintenance of the capitalist profit system. As then PM John Howard stated in June 1999: “The stable functioning family still represents the best social welfare system that any community has devised and certainly the least expensive.”

Despite the social stigma that the capitalist rulers have sought to attach to abortion, large numbers of women have used abortion as a means of terminating unwanted pregancies. In 1942, for example, even though abortion was illegal throughout Australia, one in four pregnancies were aborted. Abortion rights advocates should not give an inch to the idea that abortion is a “social problem”. It is not. It is a simple medical procedure and it should be treated as such — legally, politically and medically.

Public support for abortion rights

Legal, financial and moral restrictions on abortion are pursued by the anti-abortion lobby as public support for the right of women to abort unwanted pregnancies prevents them from achieving their goal of banning the procedure. According to the most recent survey of public opinion on abortion, over 60% of Queenslanders believe that abortion should be legal, and 85% of Queenslanders believe that abortion is a matter between a woman and her doctor. While this is a significant and lasting gain of the women’s liberation movement, it is consistently under threat by the ideological campaigns of the anti-abortion lobby.

One such example in Australia is the establishment of the anti-abortion organisation Women’s Forum in 2005 by Melinda Tankard-Reist, an adviser to anti-abortion senator Brian Harradine until he retired in 2005. Tankard-Reist has strong ties with the right-wing anti-abortion lobby and regularly features in Right to Life publications and conferences. However, unlike the latter, Women’s Forum presents itself as a “feminist” group. It seeks to appeal to feminist-minded young women with campaigns against sexist media imagery. This anti-abortionist “Trojan horse” tactic is a real threat to the mobilisation of public support in defence of abortion rights, especially as there are now entire generations who did not live through the period of illegal backyard abortions and its devastating consequences for women. In 1971, unsafe abortions were ranked as the second main causes of maternal death in Australia. This situation continues in many part of the world today — the World Health Organization estimates that unsafe abortions cost the lives of at least 68,000 women every year.

The decline of the organised women’s liberation movement from its peak in the 1970s and ‘80s has meant that there has been no widespread education about the history of abortion access. But it is a contradictory situation, as many young people simply take access to legal abortion for granted, often not even realising that there are legal restrictions in place.

Need for campaign of public protest action

It is for these reasons that there will be widespread support for the dropping of the charges against the Cairns couple. If this support is mobilised on the streets it could not only force the government to intervene to have the charges dropped, but could also mark a turning point in the struggle for the complete decriminalization of abortion. On May 9, there will be a rally in Brisbane that will launch the struggle to build such a campaign. The rally, organised by the Pro-Choice Action Collective will take place outside Parliament House to coincide with the annual anti-abortion march which takes place in Brisbane on the eve of Mother’s Day. There is further protest action being planned in the lead up to June 11 when the Cairns couple face court again.

It is only through such public street action that the campaign will be able to break through the misinformation of the media, government and anti-abortion lobby and mobilise the support that will be needed to win. Letter writing campaigns and lobbying Labor politicians are not enough. Furthermore, the illusion that such a campaign has a greater chance of success because the Queensland premier is a woman will only disorient and distract the campaign. For decades, the ALP-dominated sections of the abortion rights movement have accepted the false promises and excuse-making of the Labor Party — the dangers of which, long argued by socialists and other radicals in the movement, are now being realised with the charging of the Cairns couple.

[Kathy Newnam has been involved in campaigns for women’s rights for over a decade and is currently active in the Pro-Choice Action Collective in Brisbane. She is a member of the national executive of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]