Abortion rights: harassing us into submission

September 13, 2009

Since April this year, a young Cairns couple has faced a nightmare.

As if facing criminal charges and possible imprisonment wasn't harassment enough, the couple's house has been hit with a Molotov cocktail, their car vandalised and they have faced groups of chanting "moral crusaders" outside their home.

Their crime? The young Queenslanders are accused of trying to procure an abortion, a procedure many mistakenly believe is legal in Queensland.

On September 11, the couple was committed to trial, ensuring that their ordeal would continue, and that abortion remains very much illegal in the state.

Abortion law is one of the most undemocratic aspects of Australia' legal system. Every survey in the last 20 years has indicated that a majority of Australians — and a majority of Queenslanders — believe abortion should be available to women.

The most recent poll, conducted by Roy Morgan Research in 2006, found 65% of respondents approved "of the termination of unwanted pregnancies through surgical abortion". Yet in most Australian states, the provision of abortion sits in a quasi-legal area — allowed, but not legally secure.

The case of the Cairns couple has highlighted how fragile this right is. The couple is accused of procuring a medical, not surgical, abortion. The medical abortion drug RU486 is available in Australia, but its use is tightly controlled by the Therapeutic Goods Administration. This is despite itbeing considered safe and being widely available on prescription overseas.

Police alleged the couple obtained the drug from overseas for use in Australia. The charges rely on the criminal nature of abortion: they could be used against any Queenslanders who seek or assist in the procurement of an abortion.

In response to the couple's prosecution, the Royal Women's and Children's hospital in Brisbane ceased offering abortions. It has now partially reinstated abortions — but only if a woman's life is threatened by the pregnancy — and announced it may pursue a test case in the courts to establish whether the procedure is legal.

This will be a very important case: many Australians believe the current laws are tolerable because many women can access abortion. But while cases like this occur, that access is far from universal.

That abortion is openly available in Australia at all is the result of years of campaigning and fighting by the women's movement, especially through the 1960s and '70s. Those campaigns not only won some legal space, they won such strong support there is now an expectation among the population that abortion will be available for those who need it.

This expectation makes it difficult for governments to close down facilities or force abortion underground again.

But they can make it much, much harder for women to access abortion by upping the consequences for those that do. For example, in 1985, Queensland's National Party government of Joh Bjelke-Petersen authorised a police raid on the Greenslopes Fertility Control Clinic.

Two doctors were charged for carrying out abortions. The following year, the McGuire ruling defined legal access to abortion based on threats to a woman's life. However, the raid generated fear among Queensland women that they would be punished or shamed for accessing abortions.

This young Cairns couple has had their names and photographs plastered over local and national media. In the same issue as an editorial calling for "privacy" for the couple, the Cairns Post printed their names and large photographs. In a subsequent article, it printed pictures of them fleeing down the street from cameras. Abuse of the couple's privacy led directly to the attacks on their home and car.

This sends a clear message to women that accessing abortion could expose you to public shaming and abuse that could last your life. Women in regional cities already face enormous hurdles to accessing abortion: it is expensive and often involves time off work, travel and childcare arrangements.

In a small community, naming and shaming can be devastating.

It has yet to be proved whether this young couple did obtain an abortion in the way alleged. Yet it should be no surprise that some women, particularly in regional areas, will order drugs from overseas, including over the internet, or take home-grown measures, rather than turn their lives upside down to access surgical abortion.

History has shown that women will act to control their own fertility and body. Attacks like those on this young couple won't stop that: they will just increase the penalty. The best remedy? A strong show of force in support of a woman's right to access abortion, on demand, under safe conditions.

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