No more distractions: Drop the abortion charges!

[On November 21, a 100-strong abortion rights rally was held in Brisbane. The rally demanded the dropping of the abortion charges brought against a young Cairns couple, the repeal of all anti-abortion laws and free, safe and accessible abortion on demand. The rally was organised by the Pro-Choice Action Collective and supported by a range of organisations including the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, the Humanist Society of Queensland, the University of Queensland Women’s Collective, the Brisbane Rape and Incest Survivors Support Centre, Pro-Choice Queensland and the Union of Australian Women (Brisbane) and abortion rights groups around the country. The rally was addressed by Margaret Kirkby from the Women’s Abortion Action Campaign (NSW), which had organised a contingent to travel to Brisbane for the rally. Greetings were received from the Campaign for Women’s Reproductive Rights (Victoria) and the women’s collective of the Murdoch Student Guild (WA). The following is the speech delivered to the rally by Kathy Newnam on behalf of the Pro-Choice Action Collective. Newnam is a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party. For more information about the Pro-Choice Action Collective, visit the Pro-Choice Action Collective website.]

Since the last time we rallied here in August more has become clear about the prosecution in Cairns. Through the committal hearing in early September it became evident that the police have seen this case as an opportunity to set a new precedent on abortion law. They are seeking to set back access to abortion — and it is no coincidence that the charges are in a case related to the abortion drug — which has the potential to give so many women greater access to abortion and control over their own bodies. The anti-abortion forces know this and that is why they have done everything in their power to stop women in this country from having access to RU486. They have spent years spreading lies and misinformation about the drug.

In the Cairns case, the anti-abortion forces are going on the offensive. In bringing the case, the police have targeted a young working class couple in regional Cairns because they think that their isolation means they will be alone. We are here again today to say they are wrong. The Cairns couple are not on their own. We stand in solidarity here today and we will keep fighting until this attack is defeated. The charges against the Cairns couple are an attack on us all.

There are some that say that it is just an anomaly — that the case is not related to abortion at all. That it is only because of the way the abortion took place, because the young woman did not have a prescription for the drug. This is a total distraction and one that we must reject outright along with all the lies that have been peddled in the corporate media and by [Queensland Premier Anna] Bligh and her ministers. They say that the drug is illegal — earlier media reports were referring to it as “contraband”. The abortion drug is not banned in Australia. It is not an illegal drug. They say that the drug was “smuggled” into the country. Another lie. During the court hearing the young man who has been charged for helping his partner get the drug, told the court through his lawyer that it had been brought into the country through customs.

Another lie, especially peddled by the premier, is that it was unsafe. This has hit a chord even amongst some feminists. But when we look at the facts, this is unraveled as yet another distraction. The abortion drug is very safe. Statistically safer in fact than other drugs that can be ordered on line — Viagra for example. The complications that can arise from using RU486 are similar to those from a spontaneous miscarriage and are treated in the same way. The young woman had full written instructions about the drug. She had support from her partner and her family and would have had the same access to medical facilities as someone who had got the drug on prescription if complications had arisen.

This “safety” distraction being peddled by the premier is in fact one of the most hypocritical and disgraceful parts of her participation in this case. It is nothing but paternalistic rubbish to assume that women need protecting from themselves. And as a once-was-feminist-campaigner, Bligh would be only too aware that criminalising abortion is one of the gravest risks to women’s health and women’s lives. The real problem is the limits on access to abortion — that is what is wrong and that is what the government should be acting on. We need free and accessible abortion on demand. We need widespread education campaigns and easily accessible information about the services available for all women.

Until these charges were brought, RU486 was available from two doctors in Cairns. Some people have said that’s what the young woman should have done. But this betrays a real ignorance of the realities faced, especially for young women and for poor women. Many women don’t know where to access the information about abortion services. Many women can’t afford the upfront costs and don’t know how they can get around these barriers. This blame-the-victim attitude is one that has no relation whatsoever to the realities faced by women without the social connections and without the money.

The case is now with the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. Even though the case has been committed to trial, under the Queensland legal system, a committal does not necessarily mean there will be a trial — the DPP can drop the case right now. And that’s what it should do — immediately. Any case against the couple is an attack on abortion rights. They did nothing wrong.

We have to reject the campaign of distraction and we have to realise where it is coming from. The government knows that it needs a distraction. These are charges brought under some of the most unpopular laws on the books. Over 80% of people in this country support a woman’s right to choose abortion. Last time the laws were used in Queensland there was a massive social and political response and protest that led to the liberalised access to abortion that we have today. In 1985, when the Queensland Police stormed the clinics in Greenslopes and Townsville there was widespread outrage — a Newspoll survey found that 78% of people opposed the raids.

Can you even imagine if they did that today? If they raided an abortion clinic and illegally stole confidential files like they did in 1985? Can you imagine the sort of protests that would spark? It is so far removed from today’s reality that it seems absurd to suggest it. But that is exactly the context in which we have to understand the Cairns case. The police have initiated and pursued this case because they’ve seen an opportunity to do so without triggering that sort of outrage.

This case has been brought because they think they can get away with it. It is up to us to prove them wrong — just like they were back in 1985. It is up to us to cut through the lies and the distractions and tell it as it is — these charges are the most serious attack on abortion rights for decades. And today we declare that we will fight this attack — and we will win.

We have to realise where this attack is coming from. Often we point out how old and outdated the anti-abortion laws are to highlight how backward they are. But when we do this we can also misrepresent the reality of society today. These laws are not just a remnant of the bad old days when women were considered the property of men. They are not just a hang-over from a sexist past. We still live in a society where women are considered the property of men. We still live is a sexist society. We still live in a society that wants to dictate that our reason for existence is to breed and mother – to cook and clean and all the other domestic work that society would otherwise have to pay for.

We still live in a society that wants to tell us what we can do with our lives and with our bodies. That is why we have so-called pro-choice politicians toeing the political line. Because once you start playing the political game, once you start doing things the way that the system dictates then you are dancing to someone else’s tune. When you are dependent on the political system for your survival, for your career, then you have vested interest in maintaining the status quo whether you are aware of it or not.

It’s not a lack of courage that stops Bligh from acting. It’s not about the character of individual politicians — it’s about politics. We can see that in the justifications that Bligh has peddled for not acting on the Cairns case and for not repealing the laws. There’s a lot of talk about due process and timeliness.

That it wouldn’t be right and it wouldn’t be proper to intervene. Well it’s very hard to stomach all this talk of what is right and proper when a young woman is facing seven years prison for having an abortion – when her house has been firebombed and she is living under siege.

We only have to look to history to know that the laws, the courts, the police and parliament have always been used against women. The only way that we have ever gotten justice from the system is through fighting. Fighting outside the system. Fighting out here on the streets; through political protest. Not through begging for justice but by demanding it and by saying loudly that we won’t stop fighting until our demands are met. That’s exactly what we are saying today. We demand action and we don’t care what it take — we demand the charges be dropped immediately. We demand a repeal of the anti-abortion laws. And today we commit to fighting this as long as it takes.

Our movement has had many victories in the past – but often the popularly known history of these movements only reflects on the high points and high profile actions. But the real story is that these victories were premised upon a lot of ground work by thousands and thousands of people. They were premised upon the day-to-day work of organising, of meetings, leafleting, postering, of working to convince people and winning support from many organisations including from trade unions. They were premised upon hundreds of smaller protests like this one today.

All of us here today have a role to play in building this campaign. We face constant bombardment in so many ways that tells us that what we do doesn’t matter – that we can’t change things. But the only reason that the political system spends so energy in trying to convince us of this is because they know that it is not true. What we do does matter. We matter and we should never, ever let anyone convince us otherwise. We’ll keep fighting and we will win. Drop the charges! Repeal the laws! Abortion rights now!

[For more information about the Pro-Choice Action Collective, visit the Pro-Choice Action Collective website.]