We cannot take our rights for granted

A photo call to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act.

A photo call to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act. Photo: Molly Cooper

The howls of derision that greeted Julia Gillard when she dared suggest that a Coalition government could see “abortion again become the political plaything of men who think they know better” is indicative of the apathy that Australia has towards reproductive rights. 

The consensus is that women have nothing to worry about and anyone who brings it up is a shrill, out-of-touch harpy who plays the gender card because she doesn't have enough merit to hang with the big boys.

But three weeks into an Abbott government and it is painfully apparent that decades of progress can be undone quicker than you can say “Minister for the Status of Women”.

Zoe's Law, a bill to be decided on a conscience vote in NSW parliament on October 17, will, if successful, endow personhood to foetuses (above 20 weeks), giving them legal status as their own persons, separate to the fully formed human females in whose bodies they reside. 

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Reproductive rights in Australia at a crossroads. Do we choose the road that leads to the bodily autonomy and integrity of women, or do we march headlong into a future that could see pregnant women criminalised for engaging in activities that could arbitrarily be regarded as harmful to their foetus?

Although Zoe's Law is dressed in language that appears to protect pregnant women from prosecution, as Greens spokeswoman Mehreen Faruqi points out, these protections “do not meaningfully buffer against the overarching conceptual change represented by the Bill”. 

No doubt many who read this will think I am exaggerating, but we only need to look at the dire state of women's reproductive rights in the United States to see where this false sense of security can lead us.

The “conceptual change” to which Faruqi refers is a reality in much of the US where foetuses take priority over women who have come to be regarded as little more than incubators or, as one American anti-abortion protestor told me, “platforms” for bringing children into the world.

I have already written on this website of the widespread criminalisation of pregnant women in the US, jailed for activities including attempting suicide and taken into custody to prevent them having an abortion.

Likewise, the closure of abortion clinics due to unfair regulations has been widely discussed. But legislation is only part of the equation. Treating the foetus as a separate entity to the pregnant woman creates an atmosphere hostile to women's autonomy, which turns ordinary people against abortion

This, of course, plays right into the hands of the anti-abortion movement who have long opposed abortion (and increasingly contraception) as a violation of God's law, which they believe stipulates housewifery and motherhood as the primary role of women

This is the key point in the abortion debate and what Australian women need to know in the lead up to the vote on Zoe's Law: the abortion war is a struggle over the fundamental role of women in society. If women are compelled to carry every pregnancy to term, then their independence as well as their emotional and physical wellbeing is severely compromised. Women who seek but are denied abortions, for example, are three times more likely to live in poverty than those who obtained a termination. 

One in three American women will have an abortion in her lifetime and 60 per cent of women who have abortions are already mothers. Yet, opposition to abortion is growing. The increasingly popular March for Life rally in Washington, DC, for example, attracted 250,000 people from 2003 until 2011, where it had 400,000 participants. This year it drew 650,000

This anti-abortion sentiment leaves the pro-choice camp on the defensive, struggling to stymie the onslaught and nowhere is this more apparent than in the frontlines of the abortion war, outside the clinics themselves. It is here where the anti-abortion movement inflames passions by employing violent rhetoric to rail against abortion doctors, and where women who seek abortions are shamed and terrorised

One attempt to counter this attack on women's rights is the Abortion Rights Freedom Ride. Over three weeks during the summer, pro-choice activists from the east and west coasts travelled to those states where abortion is most restricted and most opposed by the public. 

They met with locals, staged pro-choice rallies and worked with clinic escorts – volunteers who walk patients into women's health clinics, providing moral support and acting as a barrier between women and antiabortion protestors who try to prevent women from entering the clinic.

Here in New York, I spoke to some organisers and participants in the freedom ride after one of their public talks and what they described is a situation where abortion is considered so immoral and antithetical to women's “true nature” that no one speaks of it aloud unless it is expressly to condemn it.

Anti-abortion protestors line up outside clinics yelling at women that “they should just kill themselves” if they don't want to have babies. They threaten to “rip out the uteruses” of pro-choice women and pray to God to “break this curse of independence that has inflicted women”.

Riley, a free ride participant, spoke of a culture in North Dakota that shamed unmarried women for pregnancy and regarded childbirth as their “punishment” for not keeping their legs closed.

Sunsara Taylor, an organiser, told me of young women in Kansas resorting to violent fist-fights with their friends in the hope of miscarrying, while others confessed they had had an abortion but pretended to have fallen down stairs in an effort to avoid stigma.

Not everyone who opposes abortion is religious or regards women solely as mothers, but the outcome – loss of autonomy for women – is the same. As Taylor said to me, “There is no room for girls' aspirations where early pregnancy is expected.”

Anyone who thinks Australia is immune to this scenario should be aware that the anti-abortion movement is not limited to America's bible belt. Protestors also gather outside abortion clinics in liberal cities such as New York, with the same message – that foetuses always take priority over women.

In my next column I will describe my own eye-opening and genuinely frightening experience as a clinic escort in New York City, but in the meantime, to paraphrase a famous saying; if it can happen in New York, it can happen anywhere. Fred Nile, who wrote the original version of Zoe's Law has made no secret of his traditionalist views of the family.

We cannot take our rights for granted. If we value women's autonomy and bodily integrity Zoe's Law must be defeated because the full implication of foetal personhood is that it compromises the personhood of women.