Cairns abortion trial: now is the time to fight

A north Queensland couple will face court in Cairns on October 12 on charges brought under the state’s anti-abortion laws. A woman is facing charges for intent to procure a miscarriage, which carries a penalty of up to seven years in prison. Her partner is facing charges for assisting her, which carries a penalty of up to three years in prison. Around the country, abortion rights activists are gearing up for a national day of action to be held on October 9, the Saturday before the trial.


Brisbane abortion rights rally, August 29 2009.

Currently, abortion in Queensland is legally accessible under a 1986 common law ruling which found grounds for legal abortion in the case of a threat to the physical or mental health of a woman. The Cairns case threatens to set a dangerous new precedent on the abortion laws. In the committal hearing for the case last September, the police prosecution argued that under the law the only evidence of a “crime” that it needed was that the woman had “intent” to procure a miscarriage. The prosecution argued that it did not need any proof of how the abortion had allegedly taken place or even if the woman was pregnant at the time.

Such a precedent would allow the laws to be used in a similar way to laws in various states across the US, which criminalise women who miscarry. For example, in January this year a pregnant woman in Iowa was charged with “attempted feticide” when she fell down stairs. She was arrested upon leaving the hospital and kept in jail for two days before the charges were dropped — they were only dropped because she was in her second, not her third, trimester, which is when the Iowa fetal “homicide” law applies. Fetal “homicide” laws, applying to the third trimester, exist in 37 states in the US. In March this year, Utah introduced a fetal “homicide” law that applies throughout the pregnancy. Some of the “knowing or intentional” acts that may be prosecuted under this law include smoking cigarettes during pregnancy and staying in an abusive relationship.

This is the reality of the international backlash against women’s rights. The agenda of the anti-abortion movement is to effectively make pregnant women state property, reducing them to nothing more than fetal incubators with no rights of their own. This is what is at stake in the Cairns abortion trial. The Queensland government knows this and it also knows that if the widespread support for abortion rights is mobilised it will be forced to act - to intervene in the case and to repeal the anti-abortion laws. This is why the government has worked hard to distract attention from the facts of the case. Premier Anna Bligh and her ministers have consistently argued that the charges are related to the way the abortion took place — by the alleged use of abortion drugs that the woman got from the Ukraine via her partner’s sister.

Bligh government’s lies

The government and other anti-abortion forces have argued that the charges arose because the woman did not have a prescription from a local doctor. This is an outright lie — the charges have been brought under the anti-abortion laws, not drug related laws. The anti-abortion nature of the case was made very clear by the police prosecution case during the committal hearing.

But along with these lies, Bligh’s campaign of confusion has based itself on the widespread misinformation about the abortion drugs — that they are unsafe. The corporate media have fanned the flames of confusion. In the lead up to the committal hearing last year, there were a series of articles in various mainstream papers about the supposed “black market” in abortion drugs. The corporate media consistently report that the Cairns case is about “illegal” drugs — another lie. The drugs allegedly used by the woman in the case are not banned in Australia. Moreover, they are statistically safer than many other drugs that can be ordered online, without a prescription, such as Viagra. In the Cairns case, the woman had full medical instructions on the use of the drugs.

Of course, women should not have to source abortion drugs from overseas. They should be freely available here. If the Queensland government was seriously concerned about the way in which women are accessing the abortion drug, this would be the issue it would address. Similarly, it would address the significant financial restrictions, which make abortion access a problem for many working-class women. In Cairns, for example, it costs up to $810 upfront for an abortion in the first trimester — of which only around $250 can be claimed back on Medicare.

But women’s access to safe abortion is not what the Bligh government is concerned with. It is lining up firmly with the anti-abortion forces. The government’s campaign of distraction is based upon the scare campaign that has been run for many years by the anti-abortion movement in order to prevent women from accessing the abortion drug, RU486. This campaign was partially defeated in 2006, when the ban on RU486 was lifted, but it remains inaccessible to most women in Australia because there is no pharmaceutical company that imports the drug. This means that individual practitioners have to apply to the Therapeutic Goods Administration to dispense the drug — having to jump through many hoops designed to deter potential applicants and thus restrict access to the drug.

This is the context in which the Cairns case has to be understood. While in large part women’s access to legal abortion is taken for granted, there are constant efforts to turn the clock back to the days of illegal backyard abortion. The aim of the anti-abortion movement is always and everywhere the complete ban on abortion. Its tactics differ according to the level of support that exists for women’s access to abortion. That is why some wings of the anti-abortion movement feign support for women’s rights — it is a ruse designed to disarm young women in particular, who have little or no knowledge of the reality of abortion access before it was legally accessible.

What has come as a surprise to many is that a supposed feminist, Bligh, would line up with the anti-abortion forces. But it should be no surprise that capitalist politicians like Bligh put their personal political fortunes ahead of the interests of women. Regardless of Bligh’s gender or her history in the women’s liberation movement, at the end of the day she is a capitalist politician whose career is dependent upon the machinations of a political system that is fundamentally anti-woman. The fact that her career is based in part on her reputation as a feminist only makes her role more despicable.

Capitalism and women’s oppression

Despite the concessions that were forced from capitalist governments by the women’s liberation movement, capitalism will always rely on the oppression of women – and controlling women’s fertility is fundamental to that system of oppression. Capitalism is a system that demands that women play the role of mothers and unpaid carers — to do the socially necessary work that capitalism would otherwise have to pay for such as child rearing, aged care and the plethora of tedious domestic tasks that a rational soci-

ety would make a public industry. Capitalist politicians have sold women the myth that in the “post-feminist era” they have equality with men. At the same time, these politicians and the corporate media seek to convince women that their continued actual inequality is a result of their own alleged individual failings.

The capitalist rulers’ backlash against women’s rights will only intensify as the capitalist economic crisis deepens. Capitalism needs to shift the blame — and shift the cost for its crisis onto working people. As always working women will bear a double burden — paying the price as workers and also in the home as cuts to social services place more burdens onto working-class families, in which women shoulder a disproportionate share of unpaid housework.

The oppression of women is systematic. That is why capitalist governments, even those that feign support for women’s rights, will line up with the anti-woman forces organised in the anti-abortion movement. It is not, as some claim, for electoral reasons — opinion polls consistently register majority support for a woman’s right to choose abortion (up to 87% support was indicated by a recent report the Medical Journal of Australia). The anti-abortion movement are not electorally powerful, rather they provide a cover for the anti-woman agenda of capitalist governments.

It is the widespread support for abortion rights that explains the Bligh government’s campaign of distraction around the Cairns case. Moreover it explains why the police have targeted a young, working-class couple outside the state capital, a couple who don’t have the social networks and legal protections that would be bought into play if the case involved a local doctor.

The one thing that will stand in their way is the mobilisation of opposition on the streets — the building of a movement that they can’t afford to ignore. The last time the anti-abortion laws were used was in 1985 when two doctors were charged. The case met with widespread mobilisation of support for abortion rights, including support from the trade unions, civil liberties organisations and the women’s rights movement.

It was this protest movement that brought sufficient pressure to bear on the legal proceedings to result in the liberalised interpretation of the laws that allows for legal access to abortion.

The movement for abortion rights made many gains, but it remains at a low ebb today. This is not because majority support for abortion rights does not exist but because for too long women have accepted the assurances from within the political establishment, including ALP “feminists”, that the anti-abortion laws had become a dead-letter. While socialists and other radicals have always condemned such a approach and argued for complete repeal of the anti-abortion laws, the flaws of the don’t-rock-the-boat strategy are now clear for all to see — there is a woman facing seven years in prison for allegedly having an abortion and lining up to help lock her away are precisely those in the political establishment who gave us such assurances.

A fighting movement must be reforged and this time around it should settle for nothing less than complete repeal of all the anti-abortion laws and free, safe and accessible abortion on demand. Rebuilding such a movement can be done and it must be done. If a new precedent is set in the Cairns case, it will not only threaten abortion access for women in Queensland, but it will seriously embolden the anti-abortion forces around the country. The alternative is not the status quo; the alternative is the situation that continues to unfold in the US, where abortion rights are being continually whittled away and dangerous new laws introduced to control women’s bodies while the conservative leadership of the abortion rights movement holds back the movement through its strategy of reliance on the Democratic Party to protect legal access to abortion.

The campaign in Australia has already galvanised the existing abortion rights activist groups to form a national network which has initiated the national day of action on the Saturday before the Cairns trial. So far, there are rallies being held in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. More cities are expected to join the NDA in coming weeks. The Brisbane Pro-Choice Action Collective is also coordinating a convergence on Cairns to join with pro-choice supporters outside the court during the trial. Now is the time to get involved.

For more information visit the Pro-Choice Action Collective website.