Taking to the streets for abortion rights

On May 29 around 150 people took to the streets of Sydney as part of the campaign against the abortion charges brought against a couple in Cairns. The rally was organised by the Women’s Abortion Action Campaign (WAAC) and was chaired by WAAC activist Margaret Kirkby. There were contingents at the rally from Melbourne, Brisbane and participants from Adelaide and New Zealand. Speakers included Eurydice Aroney from Pro Choice NSW who spoke about the death of her grandmother from a backyard abortion; Gabe Kavanagh from the “F” Conference organising collective; Lee Rhiannon from the NSW Greens and Debbie Brennan from Radical Women, Melbourne. Below is the text of the speech given by Kathy Newnam on behalf of the Brisbane Pro-Choice Action Collective.


The Pro-Choice Action Collective is very proud to be part of this rally today — to be part of a movement with such a powerful history of solidarity and struggle. Right now, abortion rights in Australia is facing one of the most serious attacks for decades in the charging of the couple in Cairns under Queensland’s anti-abortion laws. For over a year now the young couple have been dragged through the legal process and media scrutiny, facing the prospect of years in prison. They had their house firebombed by anti-abortion bigots. Their lives turned upside down.

The Queensland government has done everything in its power to distract from the facts of the case. It has repeatedly claimed that the case is related to the way the abortion allegedly took place, that it’s related to the importation of the abortion drug. All lies. The drug that was allegedly used is not banned in Australia. In fact, in this case it was brought in through customs. The charges against the couple have been brought under the anti-abortion laws. Not drug related laws. The case against the couple is not related to how the abortion allegedly took place.

Worst of all is the government’s claims that the case is related to the safety of the abortion drug. This paternalistic rubbish is straight from the handbook of the anti-abortion movement. The corporate media backed up the government’s campaign of distraction with a scare campaign about the supposed dangerous “black market” in abortion drugs. It is true that it is not unusual for women to get hold of the drug from another country — because it is still very hard to get hold of here and the cost is prohibitive. But there is nothing unusual about this. There are many drugs that are available on-line, many with much more severe and commonly felt side effects than RU486 or misoprostol.

RU486 scare campaign

The scare campaign about women accessing RU486 is just another chapter in the long fight of the anti-abortion forces to stop women from accessing the drug. The entire political and medical establishment is appalled at the idea that a woman could take control into their own hands, despite all their attempts to prevent us doing so. Bligh’s government has lied about this case because it knows full well the widespread support that exists for a woman’s right to choose abortion And it knows that when people know about the case they are furious. There is intense anger in Queensland and increasingly around the country and shock that a woman can still face prison for abortion.

In the initial court proceedings, in September last year, it became very clear that the case was an attempt to set a dangerous new precedent on the laws in Queensland. The police prosecution argued that it did not matter that there was no proof of what the drug allegedly used was; no proof that the drugs caused a miscarriage. They even argued that it didn’t matter that there was no proof that the woman was even pregnant at the time. They argued that all they needed was that there was proof of “intent” to procure a miscarriage, which they claim to have in the couple’s statements.

Many people were shocked when the Cairns case was committed to trial after these proceedings. People thought that the system would take care of things, that surely the courts wouldn’t back this anti-abortion crusade. But we cannot afford to forget our own history — the police, the courts, the so called “justice” system have always been used against our rights. The only gains we have ever made, the only victories we have ever had have been the result of our own struggle. We cannot forget that. Because right now, the need for reviving that struggle is as great as ever. We cannot go back. The anti-abortion movement is especially targeting young women, who have no memory of what it was like before our movement won legal access to abortion. We cannot allow them to take this ground.

We know that one rally is not enough — we have to intensify our fight. We cannot accept the assurances from those within the political system. We, of course, should seek out and celebrate the genuine allies we have — but we cannot for a moment think that change is going to come from within the system. It never has.

The dangers of taking the assurances of those within the political system have never been clearer than what they are in Queensland right now. For decades women have been told that the abortion laws were a dead letter. That they would never be used. We’ve been told that if they were ever used that such a case would be quashed. The laws repealed. Anna Bligh is only the most high profile of our so-called friends who have sold us this lie for so many years. But she’s not the only one who is putting her political fortunes ahead of the interests of women. And it is high time that we called it out. Anyone who puts their careers, their political fortunes above the interests of women is no friend of our movement.

Those, like Bligh, who gained their step up in their political careers through our movement do have to answer to us. They did not get there on their own. They used our movement. They got to where they are on the back of the work of hundreds and thousands of women. They took the energies from our movement and what for? To not only turn their back on women — but to join in the campaigns against us. Bligh has led the charge against the Cairns couple. Her government has done everything it could to isolate the case.

Politically independent movement

Enough is enough. We have to return to building a movement independent of the political establishment. We are not a cheer squad for women in so called positions of power. And that’s not where the real power lies anyway. The real power lies with us and our collective action. We have to return to building a movement that empowers women at the grassroots, that educates and organises political action to voice our demands. Back out here on the streets. This is where we belong. This is where we are going to win.

Taking our protest to the streets is not “old hat”. It’s learning the lessons from our own history. We don’t have to re-invent the wheel and we don’t have to make the same mistakes over. We haven’t lost ground because what we did in the past didn’t work. We’ve lost ground because we stopped doing it. Because we stopped taking to the streets, taking collective political action. Through standing together we break the isolation. All the new technology can help in our campaigns — but virtual protests, with Facebook or an email campaign has nothing on this — standing together with hundreds of others and demonstrating our collective strength.

Standing together in collective action also reminds us of that strength and it reminds us that what we do in the fight for women’s rights does matter. Every day the system that we’re fighting tries to take that away from us. Tries to make us feel hopeless. Tries to convince us that others can do it better, that we should just trust in this or that leader to take care of things. We can’t rely on anyone else. It is up to us. All of us. Our strength is in our numbers and we need to get more organised, more active and we need to convince more people to join our movement.

The trial date for the Cairns case has not been set yet. But we do know that on the Saturday before the trial there will be rallies across the country. And we have to get prepared now: more people need to know and understand what is behind the case. When the couple walk into court, they need to know that they have the support of people all across the country. That they are not alone. And the court needs to know that too. They like to make a pretence that the so-called legal system is above politics — but it’s not and it never has been.

In the 1980s it was this movement that built the pressure that led to the legal decisions in favour of abortion — a movement that was built in workplaces, campuses, schools and out on the streets. In Queensland when two doctors were charged under these rotten laws, solidarity actions around the country were an important part of building that pressure. Right now, this solidarity is even more important. This time it is not doctors that have been targeted. It is a young working class couple from regional Cairns. They’ve charged this couple because they think they can get away with it. It is up to us to prove them wrong. It’s up to us to break the isolation.

We have to send the message loud and clear right across the country that we will not stand back while our rights are taken away. This case has already devastated the lives of one young couple — but if the charges are upheld, it has the potential to destroy many more lives as it emboldens the anti-abortion forces. We cannot let that happen. We will not let that happen. We will stand in solidarity. We will defeat this attack. We will rebuild a fighting movement that can go back on the offensive for free, safe, accessible abortion on demand.

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