Abortion rights campaign gathers momentum

By Kathy Newnam

A 300 strong protest was held in Brisbane on August 29 to demand the dropping of the abortion charges against a Cairns couple. The rally also demanded the immediate repeal of the anti-abortion laws under which the couple have been charged. Under the Queensland criminal code, a woman can face up to seven years’ prison for having an abortion (section 224), anyone assisting a woman with an abortion can face up to seven years (section 225), and a doctor can face up to 14 years for carrying out an abortion (section 226).

Several speakers at the rally condemned the attempts of Premier Anna Bligh to distract attention in the Cairns case away from the abortion laws. Bligh has repeatedly claimed that the charges were brought because the woman took an abortion drug without a prescription — instead acquiring it via her partner’s sister. The truth is that any woman who took RU486, on prescription or not, along with anyone who assisted her, could be charged under the anti-abortion laws.

Abortion is accessible in Queensland under a liberal interpretation of the laws in a court finding in 1986, in which two doctors were found not guilty on charges brought under section 226. The case gave legal grounds for “lawful” abortion — when a woman’s physical or mental health was at risk from continuing a pregnancy. While the finding was explicit that the laws did not allow “abortion on demand”, the procedure has been widely accessible because the public support for abortion rights that led to this decision has also stayed the hand of the state in enforcing the laws.

Restricted access

The Cairns case is the first test of the laws in Queensland since the 1986 ruling. If the charges were to be upheld, it would be a massive setback for abortion access in Queensland. Already the charges have led to restrictions on access to the abortion drug RU486. On August 21, it was announced that the Royal Brisbane Women’s Hospital had stopped providing medical abortion services — instead referring women to NSW. Other hospitals throughout Queensland have followed suit, bringing back memories of the days of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen government, when many women had to travel across the border to access abortion.

While this may be a tactic designed to increase pressure on the government to change the laws, denying women their right to abortion services is a dangerous and regressive tactic. It cedes ground to the anti-abortion forces — ground that has been hard fought for by the abortion rights movement, and which no one, regardless of intentions, has any right to give away. The tactic also runs the risk of backfiring — with the government agreeing to greater legal protection for doctors without any fundamental changes to the laws.

The government’s response has been to amend section 282 of the criminal code to include medical abortion. This section has provided legal cover for doctors who carry out abortions for “the preservation of the mother’s life”, but referred only to a “surgical operation” — i.e. not the use of abortion drugs.

This amendment is designed to quell the protest from within the medical profession and return to “business as usual”. But business as usual denies many women access to abortion services — it is estimated that around a quarter of GPs in Queensland will not refer women to abortion services, under cover of the anti-abortion laws. Furthermore, the cost is also a major barrier for many women. In Cairns, for example, it costs upward of $800 up front for a surgical abortion, only $260 of which can be claimed back through Medicare.

The government has lined up with the anti-abortion groups such as Queensland Cherish Life, which are arguing against repeal of the laws because women can already access abortion. Cherish Life president Therese Martin told the August 23 Catholic Leader: “The fact that 15,000 Queensland women have abortions each year shows that unfortunately there is no difficulty in obtaining an abortion in this state.”

They want to maintain the current laws because they know that the laws are an ever present legal threat, and also because they are used by anti-abortion forces to limit the availability of abortion services within the public health system. The laws are also used to enforce the theologically based anti-scientific moralism of the anti-abortion forces — a sentiment Martin expressed to the Catholic Leader: “[E]ven though not often enforced, the law against abortion still has a vital educative role, instructing society that the intentional killing of pre-born humans is totally wrong”.


The laws play an important role in preventing the extension of abortion services, which is an urgent necessity, especially in rural and regional areas. The role that abortion drugs can play in resolving many of the issues of access helps explain the ferocity of the campaign against RU486. It also helps to explain why the first test of the laws for decades has come about in relation to the use of the abortion drug.

This anti-RU486 campaign was partially defeated in 2006, when regulation of the drug was returned to the Therapeutic Goods Administration, thus lifting the ban imposed by the then federal health minister, Tony Abbott. Since that time, no pharmaceutical company has imported the drug, leaving it to individual medical practitioners to apply to do so. This situation is set to change, a pharmaceutical company having applied to import the drug.

While the provision of RU486 will go a long way to resolving the issues of abortion access, the fight for full abortion services for all women is still necessary. RU486 is not an option for all women; it can only be used during the first nine weeks of pregnancy and, like all drugs, is not appropriate for everyone.

There has been a ramped-up campaign against RU486 since the Cairns charges were brought, including a spate of articles in the corporate media in early August about the so-called “black market trade” in abortion drugs. An article in the Australian on August 4 cited an example of this so called “black market”: a woman who had “obtained the RU486 from a doctor in India” and then seen a doctor in Brisbane and “indicated she had either taken the pill or would take it that day”. This is thoroughly racist, implying that the medical advice of a doctor in India does not count.

The sensationalism about RU486 has created a mystification about the drug and its use in Australia. It plays into the hands of the Bligh government in its attempt to divert attention from the facts of the Cairns case. In particular, Bligh has attempted to portray her concern as being about the safety of the drug being taken without medical advice. This denies the facts of the case, where the young woman allegedly had full written instructions from a doctor and would have had the same access to medical services as any other woman if complications arose. But the fundamental contradiction in Bligh’s feigned concern about “safety” is that it is the criminalisation of abortion and the lack of services that create the conditions that force women into unsafe abortions.

The final fall-back of the Bligh government is that changes to the laws might result in greater restrictions. Bligh contends that a bill to reform the anti-abortion laws would not pass unamended because the “conscience vote” means Labor votes are not guaranteed (despite the repeal of the laws being ALP policy). This is the same argument that has been used by ALP politicians for decades: “Don’t rock the boat”. It has always been a bankrupt argument used by false friends of the movement to justify their refusal to act, but is all the more galling when the boat has well and truly been rocked.

The refusal to act by the likes of Bligh has nothing to do with concern about the situation getting worse and everything to do with protecting their political careers. They are not willing to rock the boat because their political careers rely on support from within the political system, a system that is sexist to its heart.

The fact that the campaign of distraction by the Queensland government is being led by a once-was-feminist campaigner demonstrates very clearly what socialists and other radicals within the women’s liberation movement have argued for decades: women’s rights cannot be won simply by lobbying capitalist politicians. The strategy of getting the “right people” into the “right places” is bankrupt  because the system itself rests upon the oppression of women.

Capitalist society needs women to continue to carry out the unpaid work in homes —  childcare, looking after the sick and the aged and all the associated domestic chores. Because women’s primary role is defined as mothers and carers, women’s paid employment is treated by capitalist society as secondary, thus providing justification for paying women less. This in turn creates a downward pressure on the wages of all working people.

The ruling class fights to maintain women’s second-class role in society to ensure that women themselves continue to be willing to accept the roles that society dictates. They do this through promoting the idea that women’s primary social role is as mothers and carers, and they do it through the imposition of laws that restrict women’s control of their lives. This is what underlies the struggle for abortion access; it is a struggle against capitalist society’s attempt to deny women control over their bodies. It also explains the guilt and stigma that this society creates around abortion. As feminists continue to challenge and break down the legal and financial barriers to abortion, capitalist politicians and media commentators, including ostensible “feminists”, peddle the idea that abortion is a “moral dilemma” for women in order to create another barrier to women making choices about their own bodies.

[The Brisbane Pro-Choice Action Collective will hold a public meeting to hear reports from the Cairns court hearing and discuss further steps in the campaign: September 7, 6:30pm at the TLC Building, 16 Peel St (2nd floor), South Brisbane. Phone Kathy on 0400 720 757.]