Abortion rights under threat



The campaign for safe abortion access has begun again after Steve Rogers, a security guard, was shot dead at the Fertility Control Clinic in Melbourne on July 16.

Anti-choice groups such as Right to Life have attempted to distance themselves from the shooting. The Helpers of God's Precious Infants, a US-based group, have protested outside the clinic every morning for the last eight years, but maintain that they have been unfairly linked with Rogers' murder.

The spotlight is squarely back on abortion access in Australia, in particular on the activities of those whose aim it is to restrict women's right to avail themselves of abortion services. The aim of the anti-choice groups is to harass, threaten and intimidate women into changing their minds through a process of "sidewalk counselling". These groups create a climate of hysteria around the issue by using unscientific information and emotive language.

A spokesperson for the Helpers told ABC radio on July 16: "We are pro-life and anybody who would do that sort of thing goes completely against what we believe in... We love the people that go into that place and we love them when they come out. We're there to offer them support and help before and after the abortion, so it really goes against the grain."

Right to Life president Margaret Tighe said that while she condemned violence, Rogers' shooting was "not surprising". "The clinic", she declared, "is a place of immense violence and it is little wonder that some people will take the law into their own hands."

The actions of anti-choice groups incites violence, and consequently this latest escalation in anti-abortion violence is linked to their activity. With all their talk about abortion being the "killing of the unborn children", anti-choice groups create a climate where it might seem morally acceptable to some to take a person's life in order to "save" the lives of foetuses.

Target of protests

Jo Wainer, along with her late husband Bertram Wainer, set up the Fertility Control Clinic as the first legal abortion clinic in Australia. Wainer told the July 17 Australian that the clinic has been the target of anti-abortion protests since its inception.

"There were times in the 1970s and early '80s when there were hundreds [of anti-choice protesters] surrounding the building", Wainer said. "Angry mobs used to surround the cars of women arriving at the clinic. They would rock the cars and scream that the women were murderers.

"It is really just a mask to cover up their hatred of women. Their willingness to inflict pain and trauma on women is an appalling indictment of the true motives behind what they do."

Geoff Brodie, director of the Pre-Term Foundation which runs a number of clinics in Sydney, said there was the potential for violence from two sources at abortion clinics — protesters whose religious beliefs made them strongly opposed to abortion, and partners of women having terminations.

Each Saturday protesters picket his clinic in Camperdown. "The opposition is very small, and it's from individuals", he said. "It's an area where you will get some disapproval, but these people aren't the voice of the community."

Kamala Emanuel, an abortion doctor and member of the Socialist Alliance in Hobart, told Green Left Weekly: "This killing is an attack on all women's access to abortion, because it has made all women more fearful. What it's confirmed is that abortion clinics are vulnerable.

"It was a necessary step for abortion clinics to be established to guarantee women's access, but our reliance on specialist clinics is because public hospitals haven't been providing abortion services for women."

Emanuel argues that abortion should be available through the public health system. "Abortion should be integrated into public hospitals as a core part of the health care services they provide."

"In Hobart", Emanuel added, "the only free-standing abortion clinic closed six months ago for financial reasons. Since then, the few hospitals which do abortions have been pushed to the limit. There are two public hospitals, a few abortions are done in private hospitals from time to time. None are done on the north-west coast because the anaesthetists refuse to participate in abortions.

"The Royal Hobart Hospital has nine theatre places allocated per week for abortions. The number of women requiring abortions is well above this, and it's blowing out the time women spend waiting."

Anti-choice political climate

To lay the blame at the feet of the extreme right of the political spectrum, however, would be to see only part of the picture. It is the broader anti-choice political climate in Australia which limits women's access and fuels the confidence of anti-choice groups.

The vast majority of Australians are pro-choice. This is the legacy of a strong feminist movement in the 1970s which won substantial public support for abortion access.

A survey conducted in 1996 by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research found that 90-95% of people support the availability of abortion in cases of rape, the risk of serious birth defects or danger to the mother's health; and 65-70% of people support the availability of abortion in social circumstances such as poverty, unwed motherhood and couples wanting no more children. Only 1% definitely oppose abortion in all cases.

Government legislation and social practice does not consistently reflect public opinion on abortion. Rather, it tends to give disproportionate weight to the tiny and vocal minority of anti-choice fanatics.

Abortion remains on the criminal codes of all states and territories, with provision for imprisonment for up to seven years. Legal rulings in Western Australia, NSW and Victoria have provided more liberal interpretations of these laws. Reforms in WA and the ACT have taken some legislation out of the criminal code without necessarily improving women's access. But the fact that these archaic laws remain on the books gives the anti-choice brigade some moral high-ground.

Predictably, a member of the Helpers of God's Precious Infants, Ben O'Brien, has publicly accused Victorian Premier Steve Bracks of failing to enforce his state's anti-abortion laws. "[A]bortion is illegal under the Crimes Act so why doesn't he do anything about it? Why are we the ones labelled inappropriate?"

The anti-choice political climate filters down to all levels of decision-making.

One of Sydney's long-established abortion clinics, run by the Bessie Smyth Foundation, recently applied to the Canada Bay Council for a grant of $1000 to produce an information leaflet to distribute in the local area, but was knocked back.

One councillor was concerned at how the community would react. "It's not right", he said, "for council to involve funds for that... the community might not be happy with us playing God". Another councillor objected to the request because women should not "get in that position" and joked that he would organise a protest outside the clinic.

Clinic manager Margaret Kirkby was disappointed by council's attitude. "Council should be reflecting the majority not the minority", she said. "Abortion is one of the top ten operations performed in Australia. Why is it such a big deal if council supports it?"

The federal government gives substantial funding to anti-choice organisations. In 1999 the anti-abortion Australian Federation of Pregnancy Support Services was granted funding of $220,000 for a 12-month period through the Department of Health and Aged Care.

Two years earlier, the pro-choice Family Planning Australia suffered funding cuts. Client contact dropped by 12% in 1997-98 due to reduced opening hours or clinics which were forced to close. The funds cut from FPA over two years, branded as "efficiency cuts", exactly match the funding received by a national anti-choice group.

Anti-choice groups are also given disproportionate legitimacy. Many pregnancy support and advice services are "front" organisations run by anti-choice religious groups which harass and misinform women if they want information about abortion. If that's not bad enough, the NSW white pages carries a phone number in its emergency numbers section inside the front cover for an "abortion grief counselling" service, yet lists no advice or information line for abortion or contraception!

Role of the corporate media

The corporate media coverage of the abortion debate has given backhanded support to the anti-choice side. An editorial in the July 19 Australian argued that "there is no need to escalate tensions on this issue to the point where sensible discussion about reform of the law is impossible. Tolerant Australians do not identify with the extremism of people at polar ends of this complex controversy".

The editorial chastised Bracks for not cautioning the Socialist Alliance and other pro-choice supporters, "who had no qualms about protesting on the steps of the Victorian Parliament after the clinic killing".

The "sensible discussion" which the Australian is calling for, if it continues in the pages of that newspaper, will be heavily weighted towards legitimising the views of the anti-choice fanatics. In the same July 19 issue calling for "sensible discussion", Tighe was given space for a substantial opinion piece to spout her rabid anti-choice views.

Contrary to the view of the corporate media, there is an urgent need to escalate feminist campaigning. The feminist movement has lost ground on the issue of abortion access. In recent years public support for women's right to access abortion has begun to wane. This is not entirely surprising, when anti-choice groups have remained active and well funded while the pro-choice movement has dwindled in size and activity.

This violent attack on the Melbourne Fertility Control Clinic is a wake-up call. Abortion is still far from safe, affordable and accessible for all women, should they choose to terminate a pregnancy. Pro-choice supporters need to set our sights on some of the measures which will take back ground from the anti-choice zealots, and firmly establish women's access to abortion as an essential human right. In particular, we need top reinvigorate the campaign to repeal of all anti-abortion laws, so abortion is given the same status as other medical procedures.

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