High stakes in Queensland abortion fight


On October 12 a couple in Cairns will face trial under Queensland’s anti-abortions laws, with the prospect of years in prison if the charges are upheld. The case represents one of the most severe attacks on abortion rights in this country for decades.

The prosecution first came to light in April 2009, when the Cairns Post reported their first court appearance. Their house had been raided by the Cairns Criminal Investigations Branch on February 1, 2009, and charges laid two months later, on March 30. They have been charged under sections 225 and 226 of the Queensland Criminal Code, under the chapter “Offences Against Morality”.

The case was committed for trial in September 2009. During the committal hearing, the dangers that the case poses to abortion access became evident as the police prosecution argued a case that would amount to a common law ruling not dissimilar to the recent law enacted in Utah in the US, where a woman can now be charged with murder if she miscarries because of a “knowing or intentional act”.

In the committal hearing, the prosecution argued that it didn’t matter that it didn’t have proof of what drugs were used and didn’t have any proof that the drugs had caused a miscarriage or even any proof that the woman was pregnant. All it needed was proof that she had intended to procure a miscarriage – which police say they have in the couple’s statements.

Government distraction

The Queensland government has run a consistent campaign of distraction about the case, claiming it is nothing to do with abortion, that it relates to what it claims is the unsafe, illegal use of the abortion drug. Every element of the campaign is false: the drugs are neither illegal nor unsafe. Moreover, as the committal hearing clearly demonstrated, this case is about abortion, and the police are actively seeking a new precedent on abortion law. There are many interconnected reasons that they are doing this. Some of the factors are:

  1. a direct anti-abortion influence. The anti-abortion forces are smarting from their defeat in Victoria with the decriminalisation of abortion in late 2008. They are fighting hard to ensure that the same does not happen in other states.
  2. political wrangling between the Queensland police and the Labor government.
  3. the constant fight by the police for increased powers. It would mean a huge increase in their powers if they were free to prosecute under the anti-abortion laws, or threaten to do so.

The police targeted a young, working-class couple in regional Cairns in a case that doesn’t involve a local doctor. This was a calculated decision. There is no way that they would pursue a case under the anti-abortion laws without considering the political and social response. They know that last time the state tried to use these laws, it resulted in a massive social and political backlash in favour of women’s rights.

In 1985, the Bjelke-Petersen National Party government ordered a raid on abortion clinics in Greenslopes, Brisbane, and in Townsville. The cops confiscated 47,000 confidential patient files. The raids were later found to be illegal. But the then attorney general, Des Sturgess, called for any women who’d had an abortion at the clinics to come forward. One woman responded, and charges were laid against two doctors at the Greenslopes clinic under the anti-abortion law (section 224).

A Courier-Mail poll found that 78% of people opposed the raids. There were protests in Brisbane and around the country. In 1986 the court handed down a “not guilty” verdict, the precedent that provides the basis for legal abortion in Queensland, similar to that in NSW and until 2008 in Victoria. The verdict, known as the McGuire ruling, has little to do with a fellow named McGuire and everything to do with the political pressure from the campaign, which gained widespread support from the women’s rights movement and the civil liberties and trade union movements as well as humanists and others.

Those movements are much weaker now than they were in the 1980s. This is no doubt one factor in police calculations about whether to prosecute this case. But there is no doubt that they think they have a better chance of success because there is no local doctor involved, which would bring into play a whole different range of social networks and resources.

The fact that it is not uncommon now for women in Australia to obtain abortion drugs in a way similar to what is alleged in the Cairns case is also of great concern to the anti-abortion forces. They have campaigned for years to prevent women getting access to the abortion drug. Despite the ban on RU-486 being lifted in 2006, it remains inaccessible through “normal” channels for most women. It is no wonder the anti-abortion forces are panicking at the prospect of women being able to bypass all the red tape, restrictions and financial barriers.

It is not just the anti-abortion forces against this. The medical establishment also doesn’t like being bypassed. That goes some way to explaining the ridiculous parallels that some doctors are drawing: that this scenario was somehow akin to a backyard abortion. The risks and complications of RU-486 are in fact less than those of many other drugs that can be ordered online – Viagra, for example. However, women should not have to source the drug overseas – RU-486 should be readily available.

Widespread support for abortion rights

It was to be expected that the government would shroud this attack in lies and misinformation. Attacks on abortion rights are not very popular. Support for abortion rights is still very strong; polls consistently show that around 80% support a woman’s right to choose. This is a very important legacy of the women’s liberation movement.

This support is the strength of the campaign. The response to campaigning on the street and on campus is excellent. There is a myth that abortion is unpopular or highly controversial. But the most common response is disbelief; young people in particular don’t realise that abortion is still subject to criminal law. However, it is true that abortion remains a taboo subject. This is part and parcel of the efforts to limit the control that women have over their bodies: women are made to feel guilty if they have an abortion. This would very quickly break down if the subject could be openly discussed – one in three women will have an abortion at some time in their lives.

Public campaigning can help break down the assumptions: the assumption that it is a moral issue; the assumption that women should feel guilty, or that they are strange if they don’t.

But while there is massive support, the campaign is starting from a low ebb. The real battle is not in convincing people that abortion is a right, or that it should be accessible. The real battle is breaking through the disempowerment and the illusions in the system. The real battle is to rebuild confidence that it is possible for protest movements to win.

Learning from recent history

Learning the lessons from history is going to be crucial in rebuilding the movement. One of the most important lessons is in the impacts and failure of liberalism – the idea that we can reform the system in our favour, that getting women into government and the bureaucracy was a solution. Doing that certainly benefited some women. A small minority gained tremendously, but at the expense of the movement and of working class women. Immense political manoeuvring ensured that the careers of a small number of women, most often organised through the Australian Labor Party, were smoothed and protected. The movement was supposed to support them and put the pressure on to get them their positions, but was not allowed to make any criticisms.

Of course, such a situation was unsustainable. With so much of the movement’s energies being sucked away into such avenues, the movement gradually dissipated. Throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s, political organising efforts continued around sporadic campaigns and annual marches for Reclaim the Night and International Women’s Day. But in the last few years, even IWD has not been marked with street protest in most cities, or they have been sapped of much of their political content.

In large part, the movement disappeared from the streets. It is the exceptions that demonstrate that it is not a lack of interest in the issues, particularly among young women, but a lack of organising and political leadership that has led to the decline.

Not only socialists and other radicals have recognised the decline of the movement. This decline has also dealt a few blows to the career feminists in recent years. Without a movement to keep the pressure on, many of the positions that gave these women their career paths have been abolished. In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald for the 25th anniversary of the Sex Discrimination Act, Anne Summers stated:

“There is no doubt that during the ’80s when some of us were what used to be called femocrats, feminist bureaucrats with their beige suits and high salaries, used to be treated with contempt by a lot of the other women in the women’s movement. I think there was real danger, because we were so effective inside that the women’s movement, much as they abused us, came to rely on us. And then of course that made us hostages to political fortunes. So when the government changed, the Office of Status of Women lost all its power and its status and got kicked out of Prime Minister’s and all of the women’s desks and all of the departments were all got rid of. The women’s movement had become so dependent on having it done all inside government that we didn’t know how to and I think that 15 years later we are really in a state of paralysis. And so in retrospect I wish really that we hadn’t let the women’s movement outside government kind of link … I think getting the balance right between working inside and working outside is really important.”

There is not even a hint of the responsibility of liberal feminism for the misleadership of the movement. It is deceptive to claim that the movement unconsciously “came to rely” on the femocrats. This hides the fact that it was in fact a very conscious process: there was a great deal of political bullying, patronising or ignoring of dissenting voices. Women working within the system were above criticism; critics were slammed for betraying the “sisterhood”.

The ALP and abortion laws

For years, the movement was told by our so-called friends in the ALP that there was nothing to worry about, that the anti-abortion laws were a “dead letter”.

Socialists and other radicals within the movement have consistently argued that as long as the laws are on the books, they restrict access to abortion and are a constant threat – a weapon that could be used to turn back the clock. This is exactly what is happening in the Cairns case, and there is a resounding silence from our so-called friends, who still refuse to rock the boat because they put their own interests and careers ahead of the interests of women.

It is a very important lesson: we should not trust anybody who is protecting their own privileges within the system, even those who claim to be on our side.

Furthermore, we need to revive the contempt for the self-serving rhetoric about how “effective” the femocrats were. The gains of the women’s liberation movement were won despite their derailing of the movement, precisely because the movement was so powerful – not individuals, but a movement of hundreds and thousands of women organising. The system was forced to make concessions. Only when the movement had been derailed could they start taking back the concessions.

Ultimately liberal feminism is a failed strategy, and not because individual women were corrupt or sold out (though there is that too; Qld Premier Anna Bligh recently told the Courier-Mail: “I think like most people, my views on things have changed over time as I’ve gotten older and wiser”). It was a failed political strategy because the so-called positions of power are not where the power really lies. The parliament and the government bureaucracy are designed to uphold capitalist power. Even those with good intentions are still hostages to a system that is sexist and misogynist to the core.

In the abortion rights campaign, people often argue that pro-choice politicians are kowtowing to the anti-abortion minority for electoral reasons. This is only part of the picture. The reality is that, while this minority is well resourced, it does not have the political capacity that it claims. When 80% of people in Australia support a woman’s right to choose, and have done so over the past few decades, the argument that politicians back this minority for electoral reasons just doesn’t hold up.

A tool for controlling women

The anti-abortion shock troops provide justification for attacks on access to abortion. That is why they are presented as having more social weight than they really do. The growth of the anti-abortion movement was a direct response to women gaining greater rights, greater autonomy and greater control over their own lives. Restricting abortion access is a tool for controlling women – and a very effective one.

The violence of the anti-abortion movement indicates just how hard they will fight, as is especially evident in the US. The violent attacks against doctors and abortion service providers are not isolated incidents of the “lunatic fringe”. They are part of a highly calculated campaign to shut down women’s access to safe abortion.

The anti-abortion movement is nothing but 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 essential to the rearing and maintenance of capitalism’s wage-slaves.

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 anything other than motherhood so why would they want to have an abortion?

The theological, pseudo-scientific and moral opposition to abortion is about trying to force women to be prisoners of their reproductive systems. That situation helps to keep women imprisoned in the straitjacket of the family, in their primary social role as mothers, wives and carers, taking care of the young, the sick and the aged. It is all the better for the system if women are their own jailers.

This is why understanding the current capitalist crisis is so important to understanding the intensifying attacks on abortion rights. As capitalism tries to force working people to pay for the crisis, women as always bear the double burden; their exploitation as workers intensifies at the same time as their burden in the home is increased by forcing more of society’s responsibilities back onto the family unit.

This is also why we can never take the gains that we have made for granted. The system will always try to wrest them back by degrees. It is happening across the board today and has been for the past 15-20 years. And it is buffered by an intensifying ideological attack on women, the most visible element of which is the increasing objectification of women in popular culture.

It is easier for this to happen where the victories that we won were only partial victories. The victories around abortion rights are one of the best examples; despite the common-law rulings, the anti-abortion laws were kept on the books in most states.

A system that needs sexism

But even resounding victories, even with ongoing mobilisation and struggle, will not be enough. As long as capitalism exists, we will continue to face the same battles, the same threats to our rights. Capitalism is a barbaric system. It perpetuates war and devastating poverty upon the majority of the world’s population. It is a system that relies upon oppression, that needs racism, sexism and homophobia in order to survive.

The denial of women’s rights is systematic. That is why we should not be surprised at the outrageous attacks on our rights. We should expect nothing less of a misogynist and sexist system – a global system that condemns tens of thousands of women to death every year by denying them access to safe abortion.

There will be no women’s liberation until we overthrow this misogynist system. In this, the women’s liberation movement has common cause with all struggles against oppression and exploitation; capitalism is our common enemy. We need to learn the lessons of history and realise that when people unite against capitalism, revolution is possible. We can take inspiration from the magnificent gains that have been made for women’s rights in countries that have overthrown capitalism – in Venezuela, Cuba and Vietnam. After the first socialist revolution in history, in Russia in 1917, one of the first acts was to legalise abortion; it was the first country in the world to do so.

While there will be no women’s liberation without socialism, there will also be no socialism without the struggle for women’s liberation. Without empowering women in struggle, there will be no revolution. Sexism must be constantly challenged, and that includes within the social movements, on the left and in the socialist movement. Moreover, all of these struggles must be imbued with a commitment to women’s liberation and to being part of the struggle.

Many times in debates in the movement, radicals have been told that we are too serious, that we need to allow women to celebrate being women. It is a common refrain to try to dampen or isolate the sentiment for action. What they really mean is that we should celebrate the careers and fortunes of those who have done very well for themselves on the back of the movement. It ignores the lot of the majority of working class women, who face the daily grind against sexism, misogyny and exploitation throughout the world.

The movement for women’s liberation has to be based on internationalism and understand that no woman is free until all women are free. A movement with such an understanding will never again be derailed. It will never again accept the assurances of women who are only seeking to “free” themselves while they turn their backs on the majority of women. Such a movement will never be content with partial victories. It will not stop fighting until we win true women’s liberation – until it plays its part in overthrowing the capitalist system. And even then, it won’t rest, because there’ll still be plenty of work to do after the revolution!

Australian News & Analysis