Pro-choice activist: ‘When I become a mother, it will be on my terms’

The peaceful pro-choice rally at St Mary's was broken up by NSW Police. Photo: Rachel Evans

The following is a slightly abridged speech given by Jessika Faithfull to a pro-choice protest on March 18 called by the University of Sydney Women’s Collective.

The protest outside St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney was called to counter the annual anti-abortion “Walk for Little Feet” rally. A large contingent of NSW Police unsuccessfully tried to shut the pro-choice protest down.

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This fight is an old one. My great grandmother, the first female member of parliament in Northern Ireland, campaigned for family planning long before it was socially acceptable to do so. It really makes me mad that more than 50 years later, I still have to get on a soapbox and fight for the right to access abortion.

It makes sense to me that so many Christians have come out today, to exert pressure on us to have babies against our will. After all, this is a religion that begins with the coercion of a Middle Eastern woman into the conception and birth of a child she did not ask for.

Today is a Catholic holiday, marking the day on which God came to Mary, to forcefully impregnate her. I’m going to do something atheists don’t often do: I’m going to quote scripture, in particular Luke 1:38.

Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel’s warning that God was going to assault her, was this: “Behold the servant of the Lord; let it be unto me according to your word.” In some translations, the word “servant” is written as slave.

The foundation of the Catholic faith is the subjugation of a woman: a lack of autonomy; acknowledgement that she was powerless; and a servant, with no right to determine the status of her body or her path into motherhood.

No wonder these people feel the need to shame and vilify us. We are building a world in which Mary would never have been forced to carry a rape baby.

Mary is generally believed to have been about 12–14 years old at the time of her pregnancy. A girl of 12 or 14 cannot choose motherhood; yet this is what these people would have you support: a world in which people, many of them children, will continue to be subjected to assault and then forced into the physical, emotional and social shackles of unwanted pregnancy, childbirth and parenthood.

This is unacceptable. My biggest fear is that these god-botherers and Bible-thumpers will push our community back into the back alleys. I will not be silent while people around the world bleed out and die because of this insidious falsehood that our bodies are not really ours.

We are some of the world’s most privileged people and even now we risk our social standing, our professional reputations and actual prison sentences to access fundamental services like Plan B and abortion.

Just last year, a woman was prosecuted, here in New South Wales, for buying and using misoprostol. Her partner had changed his mind about supporting her pregnancy and demanded she have a termination after the legal cut-off date. He wasn’t charged, or held responsible in any way for their joint pregnancy.

We need legalisation and we need it now.

Stigma kills

If you are marching today to mourn thousands of imaginary, hypothetical babies, please take time to mourn for the millions of people who would still be alive if your anti-abortion agenda didn’t carry so much weight.

If you are anti-abortion, you have blood on your hands. You are choosing to empathise with a fantasy instead of helping to prevent the needless suffering of actual human beings.

If you accept the basic premise that reproductive rights are human rights, you cannot force us to be life-support systems to children that cannot be sustained by us, our communities or our planet.

We recognise that we are the lucky few and that most of us here at this protest have access to low-cost abortion, in safe clinical settings, and that we have access to counselling, birth control and plan B.

But our situation is still fragile. The rise in conservatism is a threat. While abortion is still technically a crime in New South Wales and Queensland, we do not have secure access to abortion. While South Australian women are denied at-home or clinic abortions, we cannot rest.

It makes me angry to have to describe abortion rights as a “privilege” when it should be my intrinsic and inalienable right to determine what happens to my body. But it is a privilege, relative to the hundreds of thousands internationally who do not have even what we have.

I have visited women serving prison sentences of five or six years for accessing abortion in Central America. I have met Irish women who risked 14-year jail terms to access RU-486 online, because they could not afford to fly to England for an abortion.

I am reminding you that the fight won’t stop after legalisation here. We have work to do abroad. We will not go back to the back alley. We will not hide. We have to use the platforms we have to speak and fight for our allies, whether in Honduras, El Salvador, Northern Ireland or Malta.

Control

The anti-choice movement is not about the sanctity of life: it is about controlling us, subjugating us and undermining us.

This march is not about babies being a “sacred blessing”. Where is the Catholic indignation about the removal of Indigenous kids? Where is the righteous fury for victims of child abuse? Where was this lot when Catholic Archbishop George Pell was coordinating and concealing the abuse of Catholic children?

This is not about life beginning at conception. If that were the case, these clowns would throw their weight behind sex education and contraception. They would hand out condoms in church.

This is about shame. This is about vilifying us for having sex, pursuing pleasure, enjoying our bodies and reclaiming them. This is about economic freedom. This is about bodily autonomy. This is about sexual agency. This is about keeping us oppressed and tied to archaic gender roles so we don’t have time to protest and legislate and vote and write and shout.

If cis men got pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.

I’m from Victoria, where abortion is legal. But even there, cultural and economic barriers make it hard to access legal services, especially in rural and low-income communities.

I know what is at stake, because it is my lived experience. I had an abortion in Britain last year. It was safe, quick and no more painful than a normal period. It was funded totally by the National Health Service and 100% the right choice for me.

Because I have access to family planning, to birth control, decent sex education and the morning after pill, I can be a young person before I choose whether to be a mother. I have agency. And, most crucially, I do not have to risk my life or my safety, either in childbirth or to obtain an illegal abortion.

A race and class issue

Make no mistake, when abortion is not freely available, it becomes an issue of race and class. Criminalisation disproportionately harms low-income people, people of colour, trans and non-binary people. The price of safe illegal abortions skyrocket, meaning those who are priced out resort to poison, self-harm and unqualified providers who are often abusers.

When I become a mother, it will be on my terms. I want that for every woman.

Today, we’re here to show our strength, to get mad, to be angry. We’re standing up for ourselves. We will never stop fighting for the separation of church and uterus.

If you have the means, donate to International Planned Parenthood or Marie Stopes. These organisations provide essential health services that extend far beyond abortion. If it were not for Marie Stopes, I may have died at 19 from complications due to miscarriage. And yet the existence of these lifesaving facilities is continually threatened.

Visit your local clinic. Ask if they need escorts. Hand out condoms at events. Take care of your sexual health and get tested. Talk to your children and siblings and friends about abortion rights. Link online with activists. Tear down anti-abortion propaganda if you see it.

If, like me, you have religious friends and family members, talk about this with them. Learn your scripture and talk them round. Help them move away from doctrine and dogma and towards inclusion.

Support Mehreen Faruqi [Greens MLC] and Penny Sharpe [Labor MLC] and their bill to build exclusion zones around abortion clinics here in NSW. Let your local MP know that removing abortion from the NSW Crimes Act is an election issue.

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