By JUDY MCVEY
(This article first appeared in Socialist Worker Review No 4, May 2001.)
The abortion of a 32-week-old foetus, diagnosed with dwarfism, at Melbourne’s Royal Women’s Hospital in early 2000 led to a furore over abortion law. When a suicidal 40-year-old woman requested the abortion she was examined by several senior staff, including an obstetrician, a psychiatrist and a geneticist, who eventually agreed to allow it. Most mainstream newspaper reports demanded a tightening of the laws and the setting up of ethics committees, and all assumed that the doctors should decide whether abortion was necessary. Almost none mentioned women’s right to control their own bodies.
Most surgical abortions involve a simple and safe medical procedure, less dangerous than pregnancy, if performed by trained staff. But capitalism still does not grant women the right to control their own bodies and fertility. Thus abortion remains an issue for the criminal law and for ideological debate between the political right and left in every country around the world. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the USA, where abortion remains one of the key issues defining political allegiances. In his first full day after taking office, George W Bush established his credentials with the religious right by banning public funding for international family planning organisations that promote or conduct pregnancy terminations.
Abortion can be a life and death issue. Outlawing it does not stop women seeking abortions for unwanted pregnancies, but it forces many to obtain potentially fatal terminations from backyard operators. Worldwide up to 200,000 women die from complications from unsafe illegal abortions each year. Until recently Australian women were trapped in violent marriages or living alone in poverty with large numbers of children because of their inability to control their fertility. Yet women have also fought back and have won major reforms including access to abortion quasi-legally, i.e. without prosecution.
Most people today probably think abortions can be obtained legally on demand. After all, approximately one in three Australian women will have one in their lifetime. Up to 100,000 will be performed "lawfully" this year. Opinion polls consistently show about 80 per cent support for women’s right to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. Only about ten per cent oppose liberalising the laws. However, Australian women do not have a legal right to abortion. It remains regulated under criminal codes which vary across the States and Territories, leaving control of abortion in the hands of the state. The courts have granted doctors the right to decide on abortion; in every State it remains unlawful unless doctors recommend that the abortion is necessary, according to certain legal criteria.
Even these limited rights are constantly under threat by anti-abortion Right-to-Life groups. The immediate danger is not outright prevention of abortion, but further restrictions on access. Targeting late abortions is a stalking horse for clamping down on abortion rights in general. While opinion polls show only a tiny minority support the anti-abortion position, parliamentarians have given their arguments more credibility, reflecting the continuing, although contradictory, opposition among the ruling class to women’s control of fertility.
It is not impossible physically or economically to allow women full freedom to control their own fertility. Yet capitalism is unlikely to grant these, rights because of women’s family role. The social system can allow only limited rights for women; the questions surrounding abortion reflect the contradictory nature of women’s oppression in late capitalism.
The Australian laws are based on the 1861 (English) Offences Against the Person Act, which totally outlawed abortion. Until the 1970s Australian doctors, their patients and staff were prosecuted and often jailed. "In Australia, before women had access to medically safe terminations, abortion was the single largest cause of maternal mortality … and gynaecology wards were full of women recovering from backyard abortions gone wrong," according to Geoffrey Brodie, President of the Abortion Providers Federation of Australia. Federal law has never covered it—the criminal codes are a State responsibility. All codes allow for significant prison sentences if the woman or doctor is convicted, except in Western Australia where the woman can no longer be charged with unlawful abortion. In South Australia the maximum penalty is life imprisonment.
The late 1960s and early 70s saw abortion legislation challenged in western societies. In Britain the 1967 Abortion Act legalised it in the first 28 weeks of pregnancy, as long as the doctor confirmed that the foetus was unable to survive independently of the mother. At this time it was presumed viability of the foetus was 28 weeks. The law also said two doctors must agree that to continue with the pregnancy would endanger the woman’s physical or mental health, or seriously risk foetal abnormality. Abortion was allowed at any time during the pregnancy if the woman’s life was in danger, or her health would be permanently damaged. This Act was a landmark, but still far from a woman’s right to control her own body. There was little problem for those who could afford a private clinic, but for the majority who faced queues and health funding cutbacks, it often meant weeks of unnecessary delay.
Australian States liberalised, but in different ways from and not to the same degree as the British law. The practice of Australian abortion law is now based either on various judges’ interpretation of the criminal codes (in Queensland, Victoria and NSW) or on reformed restrictive laws (still subject to the criminal codes) in four jurisdictions—Northern Territory, South Australia, Western Australia and the ACT. Tasmanian law has not been tested; Tasmanians usually travel to another jurisdiction to get legal abortions.
In 1969 in Victoria the law was tested and interpreted relatively liberally. Judge Menhennit presided over the prosecution of Dr Davidson on five counts of illegal abortion. Davidson was acquitted on the basis that the abortions were "… necessary to preserve the woman from serious danger to her life or to her physical or mental health (not being merely the normal dangers of pregnancy and child birth) which the continuance of the pregnancy would entail …" Similar judgments were made in 1971 in the NSW District Court under Judge Levine, and in Queensland in 1986 by Judge Maguire. SA (1969) and NT (1973) legislation followed similar lines to the British Act, although there are more restrictive regulations.
The Victorian and NSW situations are the most favourable for women because they don't prescribe when and where the abortion can take place—reforming the legal statutes in other States has generally increased restrictions such as time limits and procedures. Time limits are traditionally based on the "viability of the foetus", ranging from 12 weeks in the ACT to 22 weeks in SA. It must be remembered that to ensure legality doctors often, in practice, set the limit two to four weeks earlier; so, it is difficult to obtain an abortion after about 20 weeks, unless the woman’s life depends on it. The way reform opens up opportunities for restriction shows the need to repeal the laws altogether.
Since 1990 a special committee of the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General has been discussing proposals for a national Model Criminal Code, including nationally consistent abortion laws. It discussed abortion under "Non Fatal Offences Against the Person" and released a discussion paper in 1996, which favoured the South Australian legislation. According to the committee’s later report of September 1998, the debate was so polarised—either for total (or almost total) abolition of abortion, or total legalisation—they considered the issues beyond their expertise. Abortion was "the hottest of political, social and religious issues about which it is simply impossible to reach anything like consensus."
The committee has not made a firm recommendation, but they think the basic legal point should be: "The [criminal] law must be involved in abortion decisions because they are decisions to end or not to end potential human life." Such a statement indicates that, for the law, the key criterion is the life of the foetus, not women's right to control their own bodies. On the question of women’s rights the report adopted the analysis of a Scottish commentator that "…it would be quite erroneous to contend that abortion legislation in [Britain] accords rights to the mother, to the father, or to the foetus. The only people empowered by the legislation are the doctors who make the certification …"
The report also reveals how the law can bend under political pressure: "Whatever the law says in theory, the experience of the last thirty years or more is that practice dictates the effective application of the law to a degree far greater than is usual with other laws." The results have raised expectations that the law condones abortion: "… there is a very large slice of self-delusion in the attitude of pro-choice advocates to existing [abortion] law in Australia. They appear to think that the law legitimises existing practice or, even more incorrectly, what they regard as desirable practice."
A return to the days of back street abortion seems unlikely while there is mass support for women’s right to choose. The report on the Model Criminal Code acknowledges that prohibition only leads to "… significant avoidable deaths of women, police corruption and perversion of the justice system." Yet it is clear that governments and courts will continue to listen to the arguments of the tiny Right-to-Life groups and the church hierarchy. With women’s participation in society and the workforce at unprecedented levels, why is control of women’s fertility still not theirs?
Abortion and capitalism
Abortion wasn't always a criminal offence. Most human societies have attempted to control their fertility rates. Literary evidence indicates the widespread practice of abortion in ancient Greece, carried out by skilled female midwives, and in Asian countries. Historians detail numerous methods of birth control used by peasant women in 16th and 17th century feudal Europe, ranging from moulded discs of beeswax fitted over the cervix to spermicides made from lemon juice. Only in the twentieth century, with the development of antiseptics and anaesthetics, did abortion become an extremely safe and reliable procedure.
Until 1869 the Catholic church did not absolutely condemn abortion. Following Aristotle’s definition the church deemed life began when the soul entered the foetus—40 days for males and 80 days for females, but of course no one could determine the sex of the child before birth. In non-Catholic English feudal society, human life was thought to begin when the foetus moved—at "quickening"—about three to four months (around 100 days) into the pregnancy. Only the mother could accurately judge when the first movement was felt, and the church and state effectively ignored abortion until the 1800s.
The English common law position during this time stated abortion was only a misdemeanour, if it could be proven there was a "quickening". This definition was retained in the first statutes to deal with abortion, initiated in 1803 in Britain, but disappeared when the law was refined and consolidated into the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. This entirely outlawed abortion at any stage of pregnancy; it forms the basis of Australian legislation today.
Only with the rise of capitalism did governments start to ban abortion. To understand why, we need to examine the development of the capitalist family. In feudal society the patriarchal peasant family had been the main unit of production. Under capitalism, men usually went to workplaces outside the home. For the rising capitalist ruling class and middle class, women remained at home, ornaments and homemakers. Their family consisted of a male breadwinner, and a home-bound female who held responsibility for rearing children, while at the same time custody of children was the father’s legal right. The mother had no social or political rights, not even over her own body.
In the industrial revolution, poor peasants were driven off their land and drawn into the new factories, mines and mills. Their family was no longer a productive unit, but usually became a collection of atomised individual wage labourers. Often women and children were the preferred employees because they accepted lower wages. Women worked long hours in horrendous conditions, with no time off even for childbirth. Infant mortality skyrocketed. Abortion became a booming, although illegal, business as women tried to limit pregnancies to keep their jobs. The unmarried often had to "farm-out" their own babies in order to secure a position as a wet-nurse, feeding the babies of the rich. The alternative was worse poverty in unemployment, homelessness or the dreaded workhouse.
In these conditions of misery and degradation, the new working class was nearly incapable of reproducing itself. Friedrich Engels’ Condition of the Working-Class in England details the extent of child and female labour along with the poverty, industrial accidents and disease in industrial cities like Manchester. "Of 419,560 factory operatives in the British Empire in 1839 … 242,296 [were] female … of whom 112,192 were less than eighteen years old." Almost half the male workers were under eighteen. In cotton, wool and flax mills, women were over half the workforce. "[M]ore than 57 per cent of the children of the working-class perish before the fifth year … epidemics in Manchester and Liverpool are three times more fatal than in country districts…"
The demand for a working class family supported by a "family wage" paid to the male workers, allowing women to raise children safely at home, became popular within the working class. The more far-sighted sections of the capitalist class also looked to this family structure as new industries required more skilled, healthier and educated workers, although few paid an adequate "family wage". Universal education, protective industrial legislation to regulate working conditions for women and children and health laws were also a feature of this period. Similar moves to establish the nuclear family as a cornerstone of social organisation took place across the Western world, including Australia. Along with attempts to ameliorate some of the worst aspects of working class life went an ideological campaign to convince men and women of their particular social roles, as husband/breadwinner and wife/mother, within this nuclear family. The late 19th century witnessed a barrage of pro-family campaigns and legislation aimed at shaping the working class family into a mechanism to churn out socialised and disciplined factory fodder.
The 1861 abortion legislation was part of a raft of laws regulating sexuality and "vice". Homosexuality was outlawed, divorce made almost impossible and so-called illegitimate children were discouraged through discrimination and the barbaric treatment of single mothers. In colonial Australia social reformers from Macquarie’s time onwards campaigned for an ideal family model. Caroline Chisholm famously emphasised the role of women ("God’s Police") in "civilising" Australian society, whose convict origins threatened social dislocation. Conservative ideology surrounding the family was a key component of social control, as Henry Parkes told the NSW parliament: "Our business being to colonize the country, there was only one way to do it—by spreading over it all the associations and connections of family life."
Since many women and men opposed this, Chisholm understood that more than argument would be required to dragoon women into housewifery. She recommended that "the rate payable for female labour should be proportional on a lower scale than that paid to the men … higher wages tempt many girls to keep single while it encourages indolent and lazy men to depend more and more upon their wives’ industry than upon their own exertions thus partly reversing the design of nature." Men were hit with ideological messages; according to Anne Summers, "the taming and domestication of the self-professed independent man became a standard theme in late nineteenth century fiction, especially that written by women". Partly through these efforts, the family and marriage were established by the early years of the 20th century: "Of those men aged between 25 and 29 in 1871, 24 per cent had never married; by 1901 this had dropped to 20 per cent and ten years later it was 15 per cent." Australian governments proceeded with a mass of puritanical legislation, such as the age of consent laws, outlawing of brothels, suppression of advertising of contraceptives, abortifacients and birth control information.
The Western nuclear family became a social institution surrounded by ideological propositions—described as the "traditional" nuclear family, a "natural form of human organisation" as if it had always existed, universally. Child bearing and rearing became the only really natural role for women. The defining feature of the nuclear family in the working class is its social role—privatised support and care for workers and their children, in particular the reproduction of the working class. However, far from being "natural" the family and these roles were created to meet the capitalist need to reproduce a skilled workforce on the cheap. Western capitalism relies heavily on the the family for cheap privatised care -- not just for children, but also for unemployed, aged and sick family members.
Within the constraints of capitalism the nuclear family was the preferred option of the working class. But the main beneficiaries were the industrial capitalists and the system in general. Both rulers and ruled had interests in establishing the nuclear family, but these interests were different and contradictory. Moreover the working class family plays a different role from that of the middle class and the bourgeoisie.
For the bourgeoisie, at least three further advantages flow from the working class family. Firstly, the conservative pro-family ideology bolsters support for the "naturalness" of capitalism itself, and helps maintain stability for the system. Secondly, because women’s role in the family involves unpaid work and the assumption that women have other means of support, all work by women is devalued—hence lower wages, further cheapening production costs. Thirdly, this enables the bosses to undermine men’s wages. When workers are threatened with unemployment because others work more cheaply, they accept lower wages themselves. Overall, the bosses' hold over workers is strengthened because of the gender divide.
In Sex, Class and Socialism, Lindsay German shows in the British context how capitalism props up the family, through state intervention and the construction of a supporting ideology promoting the nuclear family as a "haven in a heartless world". The reality of family life is far from the ideal painted, and the so-called family wage has never provided adequate security, as shown by how often women have always had to work outside the home. Yet working people supported the family as a defence organisation for the working class, providing an element of control over at least one aspect of their otherwise almost powerless lives. Today the social role of the family remains largely intact, although many people resist the strict formal organisation and opt for alternative lifestyles.
The most important role of anti-abortion legislation is to reinforce the ideology of the family—it helps remind women of their primary social role. When abortion is "unlawful" it is deemed a crime against the family and against their "natural" role as mother and homemaker. Concealed behind debates over legal rights of foetus versus woman lies the crucial issue of unpaid labour in the home.
The family’s changing fortunes
Abortion laws have long reflected the fortunes of the nuclear family. The enormous changes in family life between the 1960s and 1990s were accompanied by a dramatic loosening of abortion legislation. Both were associated with the growth of the female workforce.
Economic boom increased the demand for female labour, which in turn fostered confidence among women workers and a willingness to fight. The catalyst for struggles was rising expectations hitting against a wall of ideological conservatism. In Australia, workforce participation by married women rose from 8.6 per cent in 1947 to 18.7 per cent in 1961, then to 32.7 per cent at the time of the 1971 census. More continued their education beyond secondary school. They faced a contradiction: while society encouraged them to work and study, it also said they could not do this on an equal basis with men.
Pro-family ideology had flourished during the postwar years, partly due to the government’s "Populate or Perish" strategy to increase the population. Women faced numerous restrictions: they had to leave work in the public service and armed forces, once they were married; they earned less than men, sometimes as low as 50 per cent; child care was almost non-existent; divorce was extremely difficult; rape and domestic violence within marriage were legal; contraception was legally prohibited and highly taxed, and abortion illegal. Unmarried single mothers were not entitled to a government allowance.
The Women’s Liberation Movement from 1969 grew out of these contradictions. This potential for change and the development of the contraceptive pill ushered in new ideas that sexuality was not just about procreation. By the late 60s struggle was on the streets—against the war in Vietnam, for Aboriginal rights and against the racism in South Africa and the USA, student rights, union rights and higher wages for workers, environmental reform. New radical ideas about sexuality flourished—greater acceptance of homosexuality, de facto marriage, divorce, single parents and so-called illegitimate children. These ideas both reflected and encouraged changing attitudes to women and their role in the family.
In Australia, under pressure from a militant social movement and needing to modernise aspects of Australian capitalism, the Whitlam government of 1972-75 responded to some of the demands: it dropped all fees for tertiary education, supported equal pay for sections of the workforce, funded women’s health centres and refuges, extended the single mothers’ benefit to single parents other than deserted wives and widows in 1973, and lifted the "luxury" sales tax of 27.5 per cent on contraceptives.
Working women convinced trade unions to support demands like maternity leave, equal employment opportunity, improved provision of child care and affirmative action. By the late 1970s, the Australian Council of Trade Unions was supporting "access for all couples and individuals to the necessary information, education and means to exercise their basic right to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children." This policy enabled some left wing unions to officially support abortion as an industrial issue and to back pro-abortion campaigns. When, in 1980, the Queensland government attempted to enact specific anti-abortion criminal legislation, the "Unborn Child Protection" Bill, it was defeated by a mass campaign in which the trade union movement led by the local Trades and Labor Council was a crucial element.
Since the 1970s women have participated in even greater numbers in the workforce, education and social and political life. Today more than half the adult female population works outside the home (up from around one-third in 1966), and in 1999 they represented more than 43 per cent of the workforce (up from less than 28 per cent in 1979). Whatever attacks we may face, the high levels of female participation in the workforce make it unlikely we will see a return to 1950s conditions for women. But women are far from liberated. They carry a double burden of oppression—as exploited labour in the workplace and as unpaid carers in the home.
Liberalisation of abortion laws (from 1969 in Australia) was part of the challenge to 1950s-style family values. Did the reforms pose a challenge to the nuclear family? If so, why are women still oppressed?
Superficially it appears that there was an enormous undermining of the nuclear family, narrowly defined as two parents and their natural children. Over the past 30 years, alternative lifestyles have become common -- from large share houses to singles living alone. Australian Democrats leader Meg Lees has argued the family is under threat because women prefer a career to unsupported child caring and housework. She says that there remain "insidious forms of discrimination" that deny women family-friendly workplaces and that women are having fewer children. The birth rate continues to fall and women give birth later in life. Nevertheless, when children do come along the family still provides the care. This is just as true of homosexual couples who are either adopting children or using IVF (in-vitro fertilisation) treatments, as it is of heterosexual couples.
Despite ideological challenges over three decades, the nuclear family structure is alive and well. While in 1976, 60 per cent of families comprised a couple and their children, by 1996 such families represented only 50 per cent of total families. The hype in the press might attribute this to an increase in single parent families (one in five children live in a single parent household), but statistics show that the fall is more to do with declining fertility. In the same period, the number of one-parent families increased by approximately 3.4 per cent, while the number of couples living together without children increased by 6 per cent. Since the 1970s the Australian fertility rate has always been below the replacement level of 2.1 per cent; in 2000 it was 1.75 per cent.
But it is important in any case to define the nuclear family by its role in providing the cheapest form of child-bearing and rearing, not by a mechanical formula of male plus female plus two kids. Similarly, we shouldn’t define the family in terms of its legal form: while fewer couples are entering legal marriage, the number of de facto couples has grown—from 8.5 per cent in 1992, to 9.1 per cent in 1997. John Howard’s conservatives would prefer people to be legally married, but the formalities matter little for capitalism. In 2000, as the debate over access to IVF raged, Howard pushed the image of a nuclear family where every child should live with a mother and a father. In response, Chloe Saltau painted a picture of many alternative family forms—from single parent to blended families and "step-families" (the result of divorce and re-marriage). Her intent was to show how many people reject the Howard model and this does represent a rejection of conservative values. However, the fact remains: in 72 per cent of families children live with both their biological parents. What all the models had in common was privatised care for children, with the mother almost always shouldering the greatest burden.
If anti-abortion groups didn’t exist, the right wing would have to create them. These tiny unrepresentative bodies hold enormous sway in the debate. In Britain the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child has followed a strategy of amending the 1967 Act by reducing the time limits. SPUC supporter and Tory Party MP, Ann Widdicombe, stated: "If we bring the limit to 22 weeks on the Abortion Act, then we will have broken the Act, and I will consider myself very well satisfied." In the USA the Right-to-Life have succeeded in winning a series of court rulings to further restrict late term abortions, impose mandatory delays and state-directed counselling, enforce parental involvement for minors, restrict health insurance coverage and deny state funding. At least thirty US States have passed legislation banning a certain procedure used in many late term abortions.
In Australia an opportunity arose with the CES v Superclinics P/L case, heard by the NSW Supreme Court in 1994. A woman claimed doctors had failed to detect a pregnancy until it was too for a safe abortion. She had actually been misdiagnosed five times. Justice Newman denied her demand for compensation on the grounds that she desired to do something (i.e. have an abortion) which was "illegal". In 1995 she appealed Newman’s decision in the NSW Court of Appeal, where she won by a majority of three judges. The ruling was made on the basis that it was not possible to make a judgment whether the abortion was legal or not, but it was not necessarily illegal "… unless and until the particular abortion has been the subject of a court ruling …".
Superclinics P/L took it to the High Court of Australia, but the case was settled before it was heard. Had it been successful the High Court may have ruled the Menhennit and Levine rulings on abortion invalid, causing a massive regression on access to abortion. The Catholic Bishops Conference and the Australian Catholic Health Care Association intervened as "friends of the court" to argue that point. The NSW Court of Appeal ruling stands, but it would only take a successful test case for the Right to challenge and overturn the common law interpretations.
The next opportunity came when two WA doctors were charged in March 1998 for performing an abortion. They had been practising under the assumption that the Menhennit ruling applied, even though the law in WA had never been tested. The response was immediate with pro-choice rallies, a doctors’ "strike" and proposed legislation to repeal the sections of the WA Criminal Code that made abortion illegal. Right-to-Life supporters proposed alternative legislation. The outcome saw not a "Repeal" Bill but amendments to the Criminal Code which include two new serious criminal offences: a person who is not a medical practitioner performing an abortion is liable for up to five years imprisonment, and an abortion must be "justified", according to criteria laid down in the Health Act. Doctors can be charged with a criminal offence.
While the amendments remove the possibility of a woman being charged under the criminal statutes, there is now a 20 week limit (unless two doctors, chosen from a panel of six appointed by the Minister, agree that the late term abortion is "justified"). Further, an "informed consent" clause requires that a doctor, other than the one who performs the abortion, has provided counselling about the risks of abortion. Women under 16 years must involve the custodial parent in consultations. The legislation is also designed to prevent doctors using the D & X (dilation and extraction) procedure for late term abortions. Anti-abortion WA independent parliamentarian, Phillip Pendal exulted that "… over time the legislation would become a framework to implement greater restrictions …".
In the ACT in 1998, anti-abortion politicians successfully argued for lengthy counselling procedures, including a three day "cooling off" period. The main thrust in Queensland in 1999 was on the time limits—the Liberal Health and Women’s Policy spokesperson threatened to move a private members bill to ban late term abortion.
If Right-to-Life groups’ anti-abortion position only enjoys ten per cent support in Australia, according to opinion polls, how do they command such weight in parliaments? They get huge financial and social support from the Catholic Church as well as right wing business circles. The anti-abortion position is supported by a range of politicians across the spectrum, even though official party policy is usually more liberal. ALP policy in Victoria makes it a priority to "provide that no abortion be criminal when performed by a legally qualified medical practitioner at the request of the woman concerned". But nationally the issue is the subject of a conscience vote allowing politicians to vote against party policy.
The parliamentary and legal debates undoubtedly represent elite political opinion, which reflects that of capitalism’s rulers. National opinion polls, although not reliable, would better represent the mass of the population. We have further evidence of public opinion in the mass protests associated with pro-abortion campaigns, particularly in 1980 in Queensland and 1998 in WA when thousands demonstrated. Unfortunately liberal pro-abortion politicians usually mistake the parliamentary debates as democratic and make totally unnecessary concessions. In WA, "pro-choice" MPs moved amendments to include the restrictive 20-week upper time limit and the limits for under-16s.
During the campaign against the arrest of doctors, pro-choice activists agreed to cease the demonstrations for a period under pressure from the politicians; this in turn put those politicians under more pressure from the right. We don’t know if the abortion provisions in the criminal code could have been totally repealed, which was supposedly intended by Davenport, because it was not attempted.
Abortion has been a focus for political deals. In the ACT a pro-choice politician, Michael Moore, drew up amendments for an anti-abortion bill moved by "pro-life" independent MP Paul Osborne rather than organising to defeat it. Labor leader Jon Stanhope reportedly thought there was a chance to defeat it in a close vote. However, the Canberra Times also reported that Liberal leader and Territory Chief Minister Kate Carnell wanted abortion "off the agenda before Actew [privatisation proposals]" and that she needed Osborne’s vote on Actew.
About 95 per cent of all abortions in Australia occur within the first trimester—within 14 weeks since the last menstrual period. In most States such abortions are fairly normal and easily organised. However, there are important reasons why some need an abortion later than the 20 week limit the legal situation often requires. The main reasons are foetal demise; foetal abnormality (which often cannot be diagnosed until after 20 weeks); severe medical complications and the physical or mental health of the woman; rape and incest. Sometimes a lack of education for a very young woman can mean pregnancy is not admitted until after 20 weeks. Those over 45 may initially mistake symptoms of pregnancy for the onset of menopause.
The right tries to undermine availability of all abortions by restricting access to late term ones. By exaggerating developments in medical technology they argue that the foetus is viable earlier than previously thought. This sets the background for attempts to ban so-called "partial birth" abortions. Right-to-Life activists in the USA argue that many late term abortions are infanticide. They were backed up in Australia by a federal minister, John Herron, who said in 1999: "The time has come to stop talking about late term abortion or partial birth abortion and call it what it is—infanticide." He was talking about abortions after 20 weeks pregnancy. The D & X method can be performed successfully on a foetus of between 14 – 28 weeks gestation. Only one private practitioner, Dr David Grundmann, currently does this in Australia. He says doctors are intimidated by laws requiring birth and death certificates for abortions done after 20 weeks.
The issue arose again in the dwarfism case mentioned above. Newspaper reports focused on late abortion and a suspected growing willingness to terminate foetuses with non-fatal abnormalities, because this may increase discrimination against people with disabilities. But why do women feel uncertain about giving birth to a child with a disability? The Executive Director of Melbourne’s Health Issues Centre, Meredith Carter, says abortion is attractive because of "the attitudes of our society to disability of any kind, and the low levels of support and assistance received by people to manage their own or their children’s disabilities versus the high emotional and economic costs … " The woman’s decision to abort a foetus with dwarfism is not a reflection on people with disabilities. Instead it reflects a society that does not provide adequate support. We need better child care free of charge; instead the Liberal government cuts child care funding and public services for people with disabilites.
While very few women seek late term abortions, it is important we support their right to decide. It is a question of a woman’s right to control her own body. No one takes theses decisions lightly; they are usually forced into the situation, often because of delays in obtaining an early abortion due to "cooling off" periods or enforced counselling. Only when we have easy access to safe, early abortion will the (already small) number of late abortions decline. Abortion must be available as early as possible, but as late as necessary.
Fundamentally the issue is about a woman’s right to control her own body. Without that right all women remain oppressed.
Those from different classes are affected differently, because class relations structure and determine their experience of oppression. The rich have always had easy access to safe abortion and other privileges. Poorer and working class women need state-funded or free abortion, or they don’t have access at all. Rather than fight for complete reproductive freedom, ruling class women have a greater interest in maintaining and winning more privileges within capitalism. Feminism’s call for women to unite always comes up against this fundamental class divide. That’s why campaigns for abortion rights have always been split: between those who can live with reform of the laws, and those working class and poorer women who need repeal of the laws and free abortion on demand.
Many working class people look to Labor as their political representatives. The ALP Platform 2000 pledges to "support the rights of women to determine their own reproductive lives, particularly the right to choose appropriate fertility control and abortion; ensure that women have a choice regarding their reproductive lives on the basis of sound social and medical advice …" The policy document also makes positive statements about equality and social support. But Labor’s record in office is to put profit before human need. The policy statements don’t say where the money will come from for the kind of reforms we saw in the 1970s.
Labor politicians have shown themselves willing to compromise with the Right, especially over abortion and family issues. They supported a motion from right-wing Senator Harradine in 1996 which severely restricted and virtually banned the import of RU-486. The amendments to the Therapeutic Goods Act mean that the health minister must approve every instance of abortion drug usage and the approval must be tabled in parliament. This is a drug which has been used in France for a decade, where eight out of ten women with pregnancies of less than seven weeks duration prefer such medical abortions rather than surgical abortions. The Sunday Age reported that Labor’s actions were "… not just the result of legislative horse-trading. It is well known that the Catholic influence on the Labor Party and the social conservatism among large sections of the government means that many members of parliament agree with … Harradine".
History shows we cannot rely on parliament. The most successful struggles for abortion rights have linked mass mobilisations to the support of the trade union movement. In Queensland in 1980, many unions recognised that abortion was an industrial issue, because without the right to choose women didn’t have the same access to jobs. Male and female unionists showed that all workers can defend women’s rights; and a series of unions, including male-dominated ones, passed motions condemning the anti-abortion bill. A group of male Transport Workers stopped work to join a pro-abortion picket. The social power of unions is important to any campaign. Winning union support opens up a wider audience, attracts larger numbers to protest rallies, and points in the direction of industrial action.
Capitalism fosters the oppression of other groups in society, such as blacks, Asians and gays, deliberately creating divisions among workers. Oppression therefore creates daily obstacles to working class unity. Yet all those who are oppressed and exploited face a common enemy, and ending that common exploitation and oppression involves a common struggle. The struggle for abortion rights is bound up with the struggle to end the system—it is a class as well as a gender issue. Women’s permanent role in the workplace has opened up a greater role in social and political life, increasing their confidence to raise these demands. Women workers have joined trade unions in huge numbers and are prominent in class struggles. The growing anti-capitalist movement opens up a new opportunity for women to fight their oppression alongside millions of others.
Socialists support a woman’s right to choose when and if to bear children. It is they who bear the emotional and physical cost of carrying an unwanted pregnancy, and therefore they should have the right to decide whether or not to do so. So long as the right to abortion is restricted by society, women are not free to control their own bodies and their own lives.
All anti-abortion laws should be repealed. Abortion should not be subject to the criminal codes, and doctors should not have over-riding decision-making powers. Rather, all women should have access to safe medical conditions for all appropriate procedures, subject to normal health regulations. The right to choose also depends on the right to access free, safe and reliable contraception and sterilisation for men and women. Socialists totally reject forced contraception, abortion and sterilisation, especially the racist practice of imposing these on Aboriginal people.
Fertility rights depend on a health system based on needs rather than profits. When South African women recently won abortion rights, it was almost meaningless because there weren’t enough doctors and trained staff in working class areas. Abortion must be available free of charge and on demand, so that women can decide when to have an abortion. This is essential for workers and the poor in particular. In Australia this means abortions provided free of charge in public hospitals, or full rebate via the Medicare system, so that women can choose a clinic or hospital. Travel costs should be compensated.
While abortions are safer in the first three months of pregnancy, there are many reasons for deciding on a later date—deformity of the foetus, rape, fear, not being aware of pregnancy, or parental pressure. Women should have the right to decide on abortion at any time during the pregnancy, as early as possible, but as late as necessary. While we should have access to high quality counselling, socialists totally reject abortions being delayed by imposed counselling against the wishes of the woman. Recent restrictions on abortion in WA and the ACT in the name of "counselling" and "informed consent" only serve to delay the abortion and can put her at risk.
Abortion remains a hot political issue -- not because it’s a dangerous procedure but for ideological reasons. Take the debate over chemical abortion and RU-486. This has been available in France for a decade and is widely regarded as safe; last year the French parliament approved it for school students. It is now available in Europe, North America and some Asian countries. Yet in Australia the major parties combined to stop its importation, and in America President Bush has flagged a review of its use.
The right to free and safe abortion on demand remains a central element in the fight for women’s liberation. Women have won this right only once -- during the revolutionary period in Russia after the socialist revolution of 1917. Abortion rights were granted in legislation giving women equal economic, political, legal and social status with men. Society was to take economic responsibility for childbirth and child care, and women gained the right to control whether or not they would have children. Unfortunately, the rise of the Stalinist state at the end of the 1920s created a new state-capitalist dictatorship and the end of women’s equality and legal abortion. Women later regained access to abortion in Russia and Eastern Europe but without adequate access to contraception and other social supports. Our right to choose remains restricted in every country and will remain so until capitalism is replaced by a socialist system based on human need.
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