Last week US religious figure Troy Newman, who campaigns against abortions, was denied entry into Australia on the grounds that he would be a danger to the community. Some are hailing his banning a victory for women's rights. But was it?
Newman is the president of Operation Rescue, a right-wing misogynist organisation in the US dedicated to stopping women having abortions and doctors from performing them.
Operation Rescue encourages its supporters to harass women seeking advice or help at abortion clinics. It has been linked to the killer of Dr George Tiller, a doctor who performed late-term abortions, in Kansas in 2009.
Newman was to tour Australia at the invitation of Right to Life, Australia's conservative anti-abortion outfit.
Right to Life said Newman was going to use his speaking engagements in NSW to counter End12 — the newly launched campaign to remove abortion from the NSW Crimes Act of 1900. He was also going to talk about Planned Parenthood's alleged sale of foetus body parts — a claim rejected by doctors and women's rights supporters.
Operation Rescue claims that Planned Parenthood's donation of foetal tissue to medical research is done “secretly” and “for profit”. It alleges this as part of a campaign to influence the US government to defund clinics, even though there is no evidence supporting the allegation.
Nevertheless, Right to Life said Newman would be giving more information about this. Their invitation to this US extremist shows a new and worrying level of pushback against women's reproductive rights.
Labor MP Terri Butler initiated the call to revoke Newman's visa, and federal immigration minister Peter Dutton did so shortly afterwards.
Butler argued that “Newman's presence in Australia will cause significant harm to our community” and that “this will involve the harassment and intimidation of women accessing reproductive services and professionals offering those services at medical clinics”. Dutton agreed.
Newman's visa was revoked mid-flight, but he nevertheless arrived in Melbourne on October 1 where he was detained pending an appeal to the High Court about the visa denial.
The court found against Newman, and he and his wife were put back on a plane to the US on October 3.
Butler, Labor Senator Penny Wong and others claimed Newman's deportation was a victory for common sense. All supporters of reproductive rights were pleased his tour had been bought to an abrupt halt — but at what political cost? Did it advance the campaign for secure, safe and affordable abortions? I'm not so sure.
Newman says he will appeal against the visa cancellation, so there is a chance that he or some other anti-choice bigot will be back. Given the relative isolation of Right to Life and the religious far right in Australia, even Newman's aborted tour gave it publicity it has not had in some years.
Those who support women's rights to abortion are not convinced that cancelling Newman's visa — censorship — is the best strategy to defeat the misogynist right.
If it were done to prevent him from having a platform, that clearly did not work. If anything, he and Operation Rescue were given a huge media platform by virtue of his visa being cancelled. He did not need to have his meetings: the mainstream media did the work for him. There was no commensurate media for supporters of choice and opponents of his terror tactics and anti-woman bias.
At around the same time as Newman's visa was being cancelled, Greens MLA Mehreen Faruqi launched End12, a campaign to support her private members bill to take abortion out of the criminal code. End12 refers to Division 12, which criminalises abortion in the NSW Crimes Act. Despite this, the campaign didn't receive much extra publicity as the debate raged over Newman's visa.
If anything, the corporate media “normalised” Newman's violent anti-woman politics. In many reports he came across as just another passionate advocate seeking to right some terrible wrong.
This is despite he, and Operation Rescue, being aggressively anti-choice and prepared to adopt terrorist tactics towards those they deem to be doing “the Devil's work”.
If Newman had been able speak, his fringe views would have become a lot clearer to many more people. Importantly too, supporters of reproductive rights would also have been better able to present their case, as protests had been organised outside most of his speaking engagements.
By cancelling his visa, the public debate about why women's reproductive rights are a no-brainer was largely shut down.
Censorship is easily used by the right wing against progressives and it is a tactic that we should be wary of supporting.
Leaving it to an MP to decide who is allowed to enter Australia sets a dangerous precedent — especially as it is more common for progressive activists to be denied visas.
It is also ironic that a Victorian Labor MP instigated the cancellation of Newman's visa. Victoria has liberalised the laws on abortion rights. But at least in NSW and Queensland, Labor has been unwilling to support the decriminalisation of abortion, even through the latter is part of its policy platform.
If Labor is serious about women's rights, it should sign up for abortion law repeal in these two states. That would also greatly reduce the influence of bigots like Newman and Right to Life who care more for zygotes than human lives.
[Pip Hinman was helping to organise a protest against Troy Newman in Sydney, until he was deported and his meetings were cancelled. She is a member of the Socialist Alliance.]