Abortion clinic 'resolved to carry on'

August 1, 2001



MELBOURNE — The July 16 killing of security guard Steve Rogers at the well-respected Fertility Control Clinic in Melbourne has once again catapulted the abortion debate into the public domain, reminding many how tenuous a woman's right to choose abortion is in Australia.

June Dryburgh has been a counsellor at the clinic for 24 years. She told Green Left Weekly "We are all devastated and have been in a state of shock. This has been a horrific incident, which has had a very traumatic impact upon clinic staff, the clients and supporters present at the time."

"Nevertheless we are resolved to carry on," she added, noting that the demand for abortions has certainly not diminished. "Our operating lists were full and we had no cancellations even on the next day, which is a clear indication of the important service we provide."

Dryburgh also said the clinic received "extraordinary support from the public", ranging from flower bouquets to letters, cards and e-mails.

"I strongly believe, and opinion polls have confirmed, that the majority of Australians are pro-choice," she said, but "unfortunately it is the anti-choice forces that seem to be the vocal ones with all the money and influence."

The clinic is certainly no stranger to protest by anti-choice fanatics, but the murder of Steve Rogers is the worst such incident to date.

Established by Dr Bertrand Wainer in 1974, the clinic faced "some large and rather ugly anti-choice protests", Dryburgh recalled, including a large demonstration organised by the Right to Life group in 1985 which featured the virulently anti-abortion author of a US book called "99 ways to close an abortion clinic".

"But there were no established anti-choice daily vigils to harass our clients and staff", she added. They began in the late 1980s when the anti-choice demonstrations were replaced by "a small but rather militant anti-choice group, who blockaded and even physically harassed women".

Dryburgh believes there is a "definite connection" between the resurgence of the anti-choice forces and a more general conservatism in society.

"We now see more politicians publicly speaking out against abortion", she said. "The conservative Bush government in the US has made it a promise to attack abortion rights through appointing an anti-abortion health minister."

Other politicians "back off the subject, they run scared and use the argument that it could cost them votes if they raised it in the public domain", she added.

While some, even pro-choice feminists, have started to emphasis the "morals" of women's choices over arguments of women's "rights", Dryburgh takes a different view.

"Everybody has to make up their own mind and will be guided by their own set of morals", she agreed, "but this is separate from having a basic right to choose."

"I can not support the argument that a bunch of cells in the early stages of pregnancy should have more rights than the woman who is carrying it. It is an individual decision that women must make."

She believes that claims of women's guilt over their abortions are exaggerated by anti-choice groups.

"Having worked for 24 years at the coalface of abortion provision and consequently talked to thousands of women, I can confidently say that abortion is a very hard choice for few women, a hard choice for some and a clear choice for the majority", she said.

"So in other words the vast majority of women would be psychologically adversely affected if they didn't have the choice. Taking away the right to choose is forcing women into pregnancies and motherhood and taking away their right to autonomy."

Dryburgh argues that for women's right to choose to be fully safeguarded in this country, abortion has to come out of the criminal code.

"It is the only medical procedure that is covered by the crimes act in Australia", Dryburgh pointed out, "and frankly it is unacceptable that such a commonly performed gynaecological procedure should be shrouded by questions of legality."

She said that not only should all anti-abortion laws be repealed but "we need to be clear that they have to be replaced with something better".

The new Western Australian laws are a case in point, she said. "Even though taken out of the criminal code, there are some very severe restrictions to abortion access now. Abortion should be covered by the Health Act, like any other medical or surgical procedure."

"It is not a politician's duty or right to determine or restrict the range of choices for women's reproductive health."

Dryburgh believes that supporters of a woman's right to choose must wage a public campaign for abortion law repeal.

"The issue has to be made public and involve as many people as possible. Abortion rights campaigners have to put pressure on government and combat the anti-abortion forces who to date have very successfully lobbied politicians."

"It is rather sad that especially at this dramatic point in time there is a real lack of a visible public movement that is fighting for a women's right to choose. Nothing seems to have changed. We fought in the 1970s and we still need to fight."

So far, Dryburgh said, the clinic has received no official response from two letters to Premier Steve Bracks and the police commissioner.

"Of course we have stepped up our security", she said, "but we would like some official government support."

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