The anti-abortion movement's 'feminist' fakers

By Kathy Newnam

Over 80% of people in Australia support a woman’s right to choose abortion — a significant gain of the women’s liberation movement. Having lost the debate on a woman’s right to choose, the anti-abortion movement has adopted a new tactic — posing as being “pro-woman”. At the forefront of this maneuver in Australia is Women’s Forum Australia. The WFA was formed following a meeting in December 2004 at the Sheraton on the Park hotel in Sydney that was called to discuss the next steps in the campaign to ban abortion.

There is nothing new in the intent or the methods of the WFA — spreading lies, pseudo-science and the ever-present guilt trip about abortion. What is new is that it has begun to present itself as being “feminist” and, unfortunately, some women’s rights advocates have been taken in by this deception. At the September 3-5 Brisbane International Feminist Conference, for example, WFA founder, Melinda Tankard-Reist, was included as a speaker in the conference program.

In the 12 years prior to establishing the WFA, Tankard-Reist had worked as an adviser to anti-abortion, Christian fundamentalist Senator Brian Harradine. She has strong ties with the far-right anti-abortion lobby and regularly features in Right to Life publications and conferences. Her inclusion as a speaker at a feminist conference is met with significant dissension from conference participants.

Tankard-Reist spoke on “The sexualisation and objectification of girls in popular culture”. This has been a key WFA campaign, providing it with a front for its real agenda. Unable to find much support among feminists for its earlier slogan of “pro-woman, pro-life”, the WFA has shifted to an insidious “Trojan horse” tactic — seeking to win legitimacy on other issues so it is then able to present itself as part of the feminist movement.

It is not only through deception that the WFA has attempted to weasel its way into the feminist movement. There are some long-time feminists who have been thoroughly conservatised in recent years and are now willing to give “feminist” credentials to anti-feminist groups like the WFA.

At the Brisbane conference, the inclusion of the WFA was ardently defended by Renate Klein, a member of the Feminist International Network of Resistance to Reproductive and Genetic Engineering (FINRRAGE) and a founder of the feminist publishing company Spinifex Press, which in 2007 published a book written by Tankard-Reist. FINRRAGE also recently campaigned in alliance with the WFA and other anti-abortion groups under the banner of “Real Reform” during the debate about decriminalisation of abortion in Victoria. “Real Reform” called for compulsory counseling for women seeking abortion.

Compulsory counseling

The type of counseling “Real Reform” is campaigning for has nothing to do with the sort of woman-focused counseling provided by feminist clinics and referral services for decades. Rather, it is about guilt-tripping women in an attempt to “counsel” them out of having an abortion. The website of the Victoria-based anti-abortion group, Salt Shakers, extols the compulsory counseling legislation that existed for a short time in the ACT (which has now entirely decriminalised abortion), which Salt Shakers proudly proclaim “imposed further obstacles to abortion”. This legislation required compulsory viewing of foetal images by women seeking an abortion, a 72-hour “cooling-off” period and mandatory provision of a government-drafted information brochure.

The anti-abortion lobby has been putting significant resources into anti-abortion counseling for years, misrepresenting their “services” under names such as “abortion counseling” or “pregnancy crisis centres”. These “counseling services” lie to women about abortion procedures and their impact.

The “Real Reform” statement cites the supposed “existence of a substantial body of research showing that many women experience significant, negative physical and psychological outcomes after abortion”. Its tactic is aimed at getting a hearing among supporters of abortion rights for the idea of compulsory counseling, under the guise of concern for women’s mental health. But “post-abortion trauma” is yet another lie perpetuated by the anti-abortion lobby. It is based on distortions and pseudo-science.

A report released in August 2008 by the American Psychological Association found that while “it is clear that some women do experience sadness, grief, and feelings of loss following termination of a pregnancy, and some experience clinically significant disorders, including depression and anxiety”, the report stated that there was “no evidence sufficient to support the claim that an observed association between abortion history and mental health was caused by the abortion per se, as opposed to other factors”.

So-called post-abortion trauma is also the theme of Tankard-Reist’s anti-abortion book, Giving Sorrow Words — Women’s Stories of Grief after Abortion (a topic which she also spoke on at the 2000 conference of Right to Life Australia). What is not disclosed in the book is that recruitment for the interviewees for the book was done through anti-abortion networks throughout the country. It would be safe to assume that women who are anti-abortion may have trouble in reconciling their beliefs with having had an abortion. Their “trauma” is in no small part thanks to the incessant theologically based guilt-tripping carried out by anti-abortion lobbyists. The latter’s hypocrisy in then feigning concern for the women who succumb to this guilt-tripping is stunning.

Another theme in the push for compulsory counseling is that women are forced to have abortions by partners or family members. This is yet another deception aimed at getting a hearing for anti-choice views among supporters of women’s rights. The aim of the anti-abortion lobby is not the empowerment of women to make their own choices through non-directive counseling — its aim is to increase its opportunities to pressure women to not have an abortion.

Abortion – without apology

As it cannot find a hearing for their ultimate aim of banning abortion, the anti-abortion lobby’s language is often couched in terms of reducing the abortion rate. This receives widespread support within mainstream politics, and is often not directly challenged even by abortion rights advocates.

While federal health minister in 2006, Tony Abbott referred to the abortion rate as “this generation’s legacy of unutterable shame”. While not opposing abortion outright, current federal health minister Nicola Roxon is on record as saying she wanted “to see our abortion rate reduced”. Similarly, Victorian Premier John Brumby, while supporting the decriminalization of abortion up to 24 weeks pregnancy, has said he doesn’t want to see any increase in the rate of abortions.

Some abortion rights supporters have accepted the false premise of this argument — defensively arguing that changes in the law wouldn’t increase the incidence of abortion. For example, according to a statement printed in Green Left Weekly #757, “Socialist Alliance rejects the argument being peddled by the anti-abortion lobby that [full decriminalisation of abortion] will encourage more women to have terminations because it implies that women don’t take responsibility for the choices they make”.

While it is true that changes in the law haven’t altered the number of women seeking abortions, what if it does? Would that be a bad thing? Abortion rights supporters have fought for many years for increased access to abortion services. Removing the legal, financial and moral barriers to abortion would very likely lead to an increase in the number of abortions and abortion rights supporters should not be apologetic for that.

By being apologetic about the abortion rate, and moreover, by implying that there are circumstances in which abortion is an irresponsible choice, the Socialist Alliance statement buys into the anti-abortion lobby’s argument that abortion is a moral rather than a medical issue. The fact is, abortion is not a social problem — it is a solution to the problem of unwanted pregnancies. There are of course other solutions — preventative solutions. But these are not morally superior or inferior to abortion. They are simply different birth-control techniques.

A telling fact about the anti-abortion brigade is that almost all of its members are also opposed to putting resources into such preventative solutions as increased sex education in schools, increased access to contraception and, more generally, the empowerment of women to take control of their own sexuality.

Pro-family shock troops

In a submission to the Senate inquiry into RU486, WFA board member Johanna Lynch asked, “hasn’t the current atheist value-laden sex education proved itself unable to teach about deep lasting responsible relationships that bring real fulfillment and community?” The “solution”, according to the WFA, is to re-enforce the family system — nothing new for the anti-abortion lobby. These people are anti-abortion precisely because keeping women prisoners of their reproductive system strengthens the material basis for their dependence on men, the cornerstone of the family system.

The anti-abortion lobby plays an important role in providing anti-woman shock troops for the capitalist system — which requires women to continue to play their socially dictated role in the family system by doing the unpaid labour that is so essential to the rearing and maintenance of capitalism’s wage-slaves (The word “family” itself comes from the Latin words famulus, which means household slave, and familia, the totality of of slaves belonging to one man).

Moreover, women’s subjugation within the family system plays a crucial socialising role by defining women first and foremost as wives and mothers. This creates the ideological and psychological training for the perpetuation of women’s status as second-class citizens. The legal right to abortion challenges this ideological prison — women are not supposed to want for anything other than motherhood so why would they want to have an abortion?

Leaders of the WFA are also outspoken about other “threats” to the family system. In a submission to a 2003 Senate inquiry into child custody arrangements in the event of family separation, Louise Brosnan, a founder of the WFA, opposed no-fault divorce, writing: “Divorce should not be an easy result to obtain. The lifelong commitments of marriage should be promoted as a good for the married couple and importantly for the children of that union. No fault divorce laws undermine efforts to maintain that unity and stabilisation of society.”

Some conservative groups in the abortion-rights movement, primarily in the US, have adopted the slogan “pro-child, pro-family, pro-choice”. The Socialist Alliance in Australia has also campaigned under this slogan (see cover page, Green Left Weekly #765). This concedes important ideological ground to the anti-abortion lobby by failing to point out that “pro-family” ideology is about justifying a system maintains women’s oppression.

In a 2005 article titled “The insidious censorship of pro-life women”, WFA director Selina Ewing wrote that “censorship must stop so that a fruitful pro-woman debate can take place”. She implied that abortion-rights advocates deny the existence of women who are anti-abortion. But nobody denies this evident fact. There are indeed a small number of women who opposed to abortion rights. Nobody denies them their right to hold their views — but supporters of abortion rights will continue to fight to ensure that they can no longer impose their views, via the law, on the great majority of women. All supporters of abortion rights must fight to expose the real agenda of the WFA and other “feminist” fakers. This has nothing to do with censoring views within the feminist movement because they are not and never will be part of the feminist movement.

[Kathy Newnam has been active in women’s liberation struggles for over a decade and is currently active in the abortion rights campaign in Brisbane. She is a member of the national executive of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]