Twenty years later: still fighting for abortion rights


[A panel on the issue of women, race and class was held at the Marxist Educational Conference in Sydney over Easter. KAMALA EMANUEL, an activist in the Newcastle Decriminalise Abortion Campaign and a Democratic Socialist Party member, spoke on the recent history of the campaign for abortion rights in NSW. This is an abridged version of her talk.]

Abortion has historically been an issue that has mobilised women — because control of reproduction is fundamental to control of our lives. A lot of us, especially young women, take it for granted that we don't have to have children if we don't want to. This has to do with access to contraception and sterilisation — and also to abortion.

These are clear gains of the general radicalisation that took place around the second wave of feminism, as well as specific campaigns for access to abortion.

In NSW, "unlawful abortion" is prohibited by the Crimes Act. In 1971, the Levine ruling liberalised access to abortion by broadening the definition of "lawful" abortion. This was and remains a victory; however, it is insufficient because abortion remains on the Crimes Act, vulnerable to every shift in political climate. Not treated like every other medical procedure, with its special status in law, abortion remains a target for anti-choice reactionaries who seek to limit women's control over our own lives.

Interestingly, many activists last year said, "We were fighting for this 20 years ago — why are we fighting again now?" The answer must be, the law has to be repealed.

The notorious Superclinic case took place in 1994, in which Justice Newman turned a legal decision over medical negligence into a ruling against abortion. A woman's pregnancy had remained undiagnosed for 19 weeks, despite her having had at least four consultations. She was claiming damages for medical negligence, because if the pregnancy had been diagnosed, she would have sought a termination. In finding in favour of the Superclinic, Newman said that the woman was claiming for the loss of the opportunity to perform a criminal act.

NSW Attorney-General John Hannaford responded to the ruling by saying that it clarified the law on abortion, and threatening prosecution of women and doctors for having or performing unlawful abortions.

The community responded with outrage and surprise. Many people did not realise that abortion was still technically illegal. In major cities in NSW, this outrage was organised into actions — public meetings, pickets, and speak-outs.

WAAC (Women's Abortion Action Campaign), with its long history of activity in defence of abortion rights, was an obvious pole of attraction for people concerned about the implications of the ruling.

A well-attended planning meeting in Sydney was held to discuss how to respond. A demonstration was held on May 28, International Reproductive Rights Day, which attracted around 1000 people. WAAC canvassed candidates' opinions in the Parramatta by-election, and publicised their responses.

A public meeting called for the repeal of the abortion laws. Among the speakers was ALP MP Sandra Nori, who was criticised for her "wait until the numbers are right" and "I've got the draft bill in my bottom drawer" message.

When pro-choice activists leafleted an ALP conference, they were harshly criticised by ALP members, on the false logic that to raise the issue of repeal publicly would strengthen the conservatives' position.

In Newcastle, the Democratic Socialist Party convened an organising meeting to organise a response to the Newman decision. Originally called Newcastle Abortion Action Campaign, and later Decriminalise Abortion Campaign (DAC), the group coordinated a speak-out on May 28 which attracted about 100 people, and later a public meeting attended by about 40 people, most of whom participated in the planning of further activities.

These included campaigning/petition stalls at the Newcastle Festival, supporting the new abortion service that opened in Newcastle, clarifying candidates' position on abortion at the meet-the-candidate night held by the Women's Electoral Lobby, and participation as a contingent in the IWD rally.

Similarly, Wollongong Abortion Rights Campaign called a picket outside the Department of Public Prosecution, in which about 50 people participated on May 28. A public meeting was held in September.

The campaign can teach us a lot. All those who participated in the coordination of actions learned about networking, contacting the media, doing posters and leaflets and so on.

Politically, we learned that this is yet another illustration of the need to campaign for the repeal of the abortion laws, that reform is not enough. Otherwise we're going to have to keep on fighting defensive battles — even now, more than 20 years down the track. The campaign last year made clear that there is a high level of support for women's right to choose, but a general lack of awareness that abortion remains on the Crimes Act.

There remains a lot to be done. Getting large numbers of people active, getting the unions active is important. These things can happen, particularly if the Newman ruling is upheld on appeal. We need to be ready to act if that happens — and last year networks were built and consolidated, and more people now have campaign experience.

Finally, there's the need to recognise that while abortion laws must be repealed, legal hindrances are not the only limitation on access to abortion services. Economic and geographic factors persist.

These include the privatisation of hospitals with abortion services, without the requirement that they continue to offer the service; ridiculously long waiting periods in the public system (where terminations are free); a general lack of information, both for doctors and for women contemplating pregnancy termination, on where services are available; and of course, obstructive doctors who won't refer patients, won't diagnose women's pregnancies if they think they'll want a termination, or who are moralistic, not giving women information and the opportunity to make their own decision.

All of these are day-to-day, practical ways in which women's right to choose is compromised. This needs to be part of the campaign.