The Long View – Advocacy for Abortion

Keynote presented at the Children by Choice Conference

Brisbane, February 2015


In 1982 a group called Toleration that described itself as a coalition against fanaticism invited me to give a keynote speech at its inaugural conference on the theme “Your body but whose right to choose?”

Rereading it in preparation for today’s speech it seemed eerily familiar- a real sense of déjà vue, including the protesters outside. 

I feel proud that half a century of feminist activism has enhanced the status and rights of women and equally sad that abortion remains an intractable issue for us.

Unplanned and / or unwanted pregnancy touches most families.  Generations of women have had to confront this issue.

It is never an easy or painless decision. 

Stigma and social disapproval, access, affordability, shame, risk are still part of the decision making process. And secrecy continually challenges our advocacy as we quickly put the experience behind us.

Many women of my age will remember visiting the underground abortion clinic –

  • the furtive phone calls from the public telephone to arrange the visits;
  • the lack of pregnancy tests;
  • the driving to seemingly far away suburbs;
  • passing through double doors and prepaying cash for the operation as the police cars patrolled;
  • leaving the clinic with no follow up service.

It was humiliating, shameful and degrading – an experience to be buried in the deeper recesses of consciousness.  And we blamed ourselves and feared the consequences.

And above all it was to be kept a secret.

In my case I lied to doctors for years.

Nobody counselled us, as consumers we did not believe we had a right to expect it.

It is amazing to recall that I’m talking about the sixties and seventies.

The women’s movement changed the public discourse in a very short time by publicly sharing and acknowledging our personal experiences.  Some of us advertised our illegal abortions in a two page spread in the national times and urged the police to prosecute.

They did not and that was a tipping point.  It gave us renewed confidence to campaign more fiercely for our right to control our bodies and choose whether or not to be pregnant.

The growth of Family Planning centres, terminations available on medical benefits, free-standing abortion clinics, women’s health centres, almost entirely managed and serviced by women.  It seemed like our dreams were coming true. 

We believed there would be no going back to the bad old days.

We were on a roll and success seemed linear and incremental. By the mid-1980s we thought we had defeated the pro-lifers.

Australians have consistently supported the proposition that abortion is a matter between a woman and her doctor. The National Women’s Advisory Council of which I was a member asked Ita Buttrose then editor of the Women’s Weekly to poll its readers for their views.  That poll in 1980 remains the gold standard –over 80% supported a woman’s right to choose.

Gloria Steinem wrote this warning in Ms Magazine in February 1981.

It is precisely the overwhelming, populist, majority support for the right of the individual to decide whether and when to have children, without government control or coercion that has brought about the current, well organised authoritarian backlash by the ultra-right wing.

After all, if the patriarchal state, church and family lose their control over women’s bodies as the most basic means of production – the means of reproduction – those structures eventually will be more democratic, and not patriarch at all.  The model and microcosm of authoritarianism in the family will disappear. 

No wonder this issue of reproductive freedom faces such fierce opposition.  If women seize control of ‘ the means of reproduction’, so to speak, the long term results include the undermining of race, class, and nationalistic divisions – all excellent reasons why we should do it. 

I have now come to the view that we will always have with us the compulsory pregnancy pushers, under the guise of advocating life and protecting children. They have the support of organised religion behind them and they will never give up.

We must recognise that and not waste too much of our energy in conflict.

Our energy is better spent protecting already distraught pregnant girls and women from being exposed to unethical ‘counselling’ by hard-core pro-lifers. This could extend the counselling session and delay the patient’s decision beyond the first trimester of pregnancy. 

If such propagandising occurred in other health settings the public would doubtlessly raise vociferous objections. 

We must help our communities understand that although anti-abortion propagandists are certainly pro-foetus, there is no persuasive evidence that they are pro-life.

We must unequivocally communicate our conviction that the rights of persons already born take precedence over the rights of foetuses. 

Feminists especially must indicate very clearly what the links are between abortion rights and personal liberty.  We must see and demonstrate to other people the connection about taking away women’s reproductive rights and having our own and their own freedoms cut. 

We have had only a small time with these rights, only a small time when we haven’t had to help friends, mothers, aunts with the result of backyard abortions.  And we do not have to look past the countries in our region to see how many women in the world face these decisions daily.

If as feminists we retreat from a focused defense of abortion rights, we will lose one of the most dramatic and popularly supported victories that we have had. 

Janet Radcliffe Richards wrote in the Sceptical Feminist:

If the only issue in the abortion debate was the usually discussed one of whether or not the unborn child was human and whether therefore abortion was a kind of murder, the subject would not be a feminist one at all.  Whether something is human or not has nothing to do with feminism.  That, however, is not the only issue.  Argument shows that current attitudes to abortion must at least to some extent be underlain by vindictive attitudes to sexual activity in women, and support the empirical evidence that much hostility to abortion is connected with hostility to women.  These are matters of the strongest feminist concern. 

Terrifying as it may seem, it really is up to us.  If we define ourselves as an embattled minority we may become one. 

We are the majority and we must continue to articulate the sentiments and arguments coherently. 

We must make clear how fundamental reproductive rights are to the changes in Australian life.  The anti-abortion movement is the symbol and substance of a campaign to cancel people’s right to choose how they will be sexual and how they will live their lives. 

Social media offers us new tools and opportunities to continue our advocacy.

We may need to change our language to communicate our position.

We must be persistent in our advocacy so that we recognise key moments and opportunities to break through the legal barriers that remain.

The pushback from politicians about when is the right time to debate these issues is unacceptable. 

This is a continuing narrative.

We must share our stories with younger women without criticising or patronising them.

It could all so easily slip away.

So let us keep the conversations going and seize our opportunities.  The new Queensland government with a majority of women in Cabinet is surely a good starting place. 

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