Workers Vanguard No. 944
9 October 2009
Anti-Abortion Witchhunt in Australia
Full Access to RU486 Now! For Free Abortion on Demand!
(Women and Revolution pages)
We reprint below an article from Australasian Spartacist No. 206 (Spring 2009), newspaper of the Spartacist League of Australia, section of the International Communist League.
AUGUST 31—A young Queensland couple, 19-year-old Tegan Leach and 21-year-old Sergie Brennan, are being subjected to a harrowing ordeal over the alleged use of the drug misoprostol to end the teenager’s pregnancy last year. The couple were charged by police in April under archaic 110-year-old anti-abortion clauses in Queensland’s Criminal Code. Tegan is the first woman in the state to be charged over procuring an abortion in more than half a century. If convicted, she faces up to seven years’ jail. Her partner faces a three-year and possibly 14-year jail term for procuring and supplying a drug to procure an abortion. We say: Drop the charges against Tegan and Sergie now! It is in the interest of the labour movement and all defenders of democratic rights to vigorously take up their defence.
The state’s witchhunt of the couple, overseen by the Queensland Labor government of Anna Bligh, has emboldened the anti-abortion bigots, who reportedly mobilised outside the couple’s home. The pair was forced to flee the house after it was firebombed and Sergie’s car vandalised. In this “deep north” state, riddled with religious backwardness and prejudice, the Labor government has ruled for over ten years, pushing racist “law and order” campaigns that serve to strengthen the powers of the police, who carry out brutal repression within Aboriginal communities.
A “pro-choice” feminist, Premier Bligh has backed the police prosecution of the couple, claiming the case is about the importation of misoprostol and its use without medical supervision. Flouting Queensland ALP [Australian Labor Party] state policy to repeal the anti-abortion laws from the criminal code, the premier reaffirmed a March election commitment made to the Australian Christian lobby that the party had no intention of pursuing abortion law reform. Bligh, a former student campaigner for abortion rights, declared any changes would be “a matter of a private member’s bill” adding, “I certainly have no intention of introducing a private member’s bill...” (Australian, 12 June). In fact, such a bill decriminalising abortion drafted in 2003 was repeatedly blocked by then-ALP premier, Peter Beattie, and Bligh herself when she took over the job.
With Section 282 of Queensland’s Criminal Code technically only allowing a “surgical operation” to save a woman’s life, the police prosecution of Leach and Brennan has raised widespread concern among doctors offering drug-induced medical abortions over possible prosecution of themselves and their patients. Prominent Cairns obstetrician, Dr. Caroline de Costa, who was in the forefront of the 2005-06 campaign to overturn the federal government’s ban on the abortion drug RU486, has stopped prescribing RU486/misoprostol and urged others to do likewise until the law is clarified. She has since been joined by doctors around the state, including from some 22 public hospitals, which carry out mostly medical abortions in cases of severe fetal abnormality or health risk.
Forcing the hand of the Bligh state government, Queensland’s largest hospital, the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, suspended its medical abortion services in mid August. Usually performing about 80 late-term abortions each year, the hospital has now referred women needing such terminations interstate. The state Labor government rushed into damage control, declaring it would revise Section 282 of the code to allow for medical procedures. Bligh pointedly added that the government would not bow to pressure and decriminalise abortion in the state.
According to a poll reported on the Pro Choice Qld website, 79 percent of Queenslanders want abortion out of the criminal code. The demand for abortion rights is the demand for a simple, basic democratic right to a medical or surgical procedure, among the safest in the world. It is outrageous that the capitalist state and its bourgeois parliamentarians should have the power to interfere in people’s most intimate, private decisions, including a woman’s decision to have an abortion. As one Cairns doctor recently said, “I do not believe police should be standing behind the bedroom door” (Cairns Post, 22 August). State out of the bedroom! We fight for free abortion and contraception on demand, without qualification, linked to a program of free, quality health care for all. These are vital necessities for women and for working people as a whole, along with paid maternity and paternity leave and free 24-hour childcare facilities at work and in the community.
Rudd’s Labor Government Enforces Anti-Woman Bigotry
In the context of the current global capitalist economic crisis, working people face increasing hardship and economic uncertainty. In July, the Labor prime minister, Kevin Rudd, told the populace to brace for rising prices, interest rates and unemployment on the “long, tough and bumpy road” of “economic recovery.” In other words, any resurgence of capitalist profits will be built on the misery of working people. The loss of full-time jobs has been matched by a growth in part-time work, reinforcing a decades-long push towards increased casualisation of the workforce. Often the hardest hit by attacks on jobs and conditions are women workers, who on average earn 17.5 percent less than men.
Barely 50 percent of women have access to paid maternity leave, forcing thousands of low-income-earning mothers back to work early out of financial necessity. As the economic crisis unfolded, the government talked of shelving the introduction of a national paid maternity leave scheme. In the May budget, it announced an 18-week national parental leave scheme that won’t be introduced until 2011. Even then it will be means-tested and only pay the poverty-level minimum wage while denying recipients family tax benefits and other payments.
Families also face a health care system in crisis, with pregnant women in labour being turned away from hospitals due to lack of specialist staff and others having miscarriages in the toilets because of bed shortages. Parents are also in dire need of accessible, affordable childcare. A 2008 UNICEF report on childcare slammed Australia as third-worst out of 25 developed countries, spending less than 1 percent of GDP on early childhood services. With the widening gap between rich and poor, increasing numbers of children are growing up in households struggling on or below the poverty line. Child poverty rates stand at more than 10 percent. Aboriginal communities have been subjected to racist “quarantining” of welfare payments for more than two years [replacing half the cash payments with cards that can be used only for specific items and at specific retailers]. Liberal and Labor MPs alike have called for quarantining welfare payments across the entire country.
A moralistic, god-fearing Christian, Kevin Rudd is well known for his reactionary anti-abortion views. From voting for the RU486 ban in 1996 to allowing a “conscience” vote on abortion issues, from supporting the outrageous ban on gay marriage in 2004 to upholding these discriminatory laws in office today, the pro-capitalist Labor Party is clearly no friend of women and the oppressed.
For Access to RU486, Free of Charge, Now!
In 2006, when federal parliament voted to overturn its effective ban on RU486, transferring control to the state-appointed Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), we wrote:
“It is a good thing that control over RU486 no longer rests in the hands of the anti-abortion bigot Abbott [then federal Liberal health minister]. Australian women now at least have the possibility of accessing a drug that two million users in more than 30 different countries have found to be safe and effective for more than a decade.... However, while the TGA is expected to approve the drug within the year, access is likely to be severely restricted, as is the case in New Zealand, and there is also no guarantee that it will be affordable for working and poor women. Of course the TGA could bury RU486 for years. For access to RU486, free of charge, now!”
— Australasian Spartacist No. 194, Autumn 2006
Importation and administration of RU486 is so far restricted to doctors approved by the TGA under stringent conditions, with 61 reportedly authorised as of early August. The latest TGA approvals, announced amidst the growing outcry over Queensland’s current anti-abortion case, include authorisation for 14 doctors from Marie Stopes International clinics around the country to provide RU486 in cases where women are less than nine weeks pregnant and “meet eligibility criteria covering standard surgical abortions” (Australian, 11 August). The approval sent anti-abortion fanatics into a frenzy, labelling this women’s health organisation “fundamentally evil” and grotesquely comparing it to “terrorists.”
Up until this decade, anti-abortion laws were included in all state and territory criminal codes. However, common law rulings in the 1970s and ’80s gave tens of thousands of women across the country access, albeit restricted, to this medical procedure. The availability of relatively cheap, safe abortions in most major cities, despite the continued existence of legislation making it a crime, was in large part a tribute to the militant struggles of courageous fighters for abortion rights such as the late Dr. Bertram Wainer.
In 2002 the ACT [Australian Capital Territory] repealed the anti-abortion provisions in its Criminal Code and last year Victoria also repealed its laws. However, even here restrictions and bureaucratic hurdles still exist, particularly for the small number of women desperately seeking late-term abortions. In the ACT, obtaining an abortion after the first twelve weeks requires approval from a hospital “ethics” committee. In Victoria, the Brumby ALP government’s abortion law reform bill removed all restrictions within the first 24 weeks, but requires the agreement of two doctors for later abortions.
We defend every gain won from the capitalist rulers against attack by the state and other reactionary forces such as the Catholic Church which is currently threatening legal action against aspects of the Victorian abortion law reform. While reforms can be won under capitalism, they are necessarily partial and can be reversed by the bourgeoisie. They remain under threat as long as bourgeois class rule remains. This is seen in the ongoing attacks on abortion rights in the U.S., including the assassination of Dr. George Tiller earlier this year by an anti-abortion fanatic. Dr. Tiller heroically provided abortion services to women for more than 35 years, despite massive harassment, both legal and extralegal, against him.
For Women’s Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
That the state can dictate whether a woman can or cannot have an abortion exemplifies the oppression women face in capitalist society. This oppression is rooted in the age-old institution of the family, which arose with the advent of private property as the mechanism for passing property from one generation to the next. The family serves in general as the social means for rearing the next generation, and under capitalism, where the masses of youth are slated for wage slavery or service as cannon fodder in the armed forces, it seeks to instil obedience to authority. It serves as an ideological transmission belt for the “values” of the capitalist rulers, inculcating religious backwardness as a brake on social consciousness. Along with organised religion and the state apparatus, the institution of the family is a fundamental prop for the capitalist system of oppression and exploitation.
The private property system, upheld by the capitalist state, and the family are the most basic and deeply intertwined aspects of class society. They cannot be “reformed” away. While fighting to defend every gain wrested through hard struggle from this ruling class, the inescapable conclusion must be that the entire capitalist system must go. To win freedom for women and all the oppressed requires a workers socialist revolution to overturn capitalist property relations and the creation of a workers state that rests on a collectivised and planned economy where production is for human need, not profit.
A workers government will be able to begin to provide social alternatives—in caring for children, the sick, the elderly, for housework, etc.—to the oppressive family structure. The young Soviet workers state created by the 1917 Russian Revolution led by the Bolshevik Party acted on this understanding of women’s oppression and did more to liberate women than any other society in history. While inheriting a largely peasant society devastated by the First World War and bloody Civil War, the Bolsheviks made heroic efforts to replace the family with social alternatives. They were the first government in the world to overturn criminal penalties for abortion in 1920 (health concerns prevented earlier legalisation in those days before antibiotics). (See “The Russian Revolution and the Emancipation of Women,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 59, Spring 2006.)
Until its counterrevolutionary destruction in 1991-92, the Soviet Union remained a workers state, albeit degenerated under a nationalist, parasitic, bureaucratic caste, which usurped political power from the Soviet proletariat in a political counterrevolution beginning under Stalin in 1923-24. We stood for the unconditional military defence of the USSR against imperialist attack and internal capitalist counterrevolution and called for proletarian political revolution to oust the Stalinist misleaders. Capitalist restoration in 1991-92 was a deep blow to the world working class, not least women in the former USSR, and conditions the current period of capitalist reaction.
Marxism vs. Feminism
Young women who hate the ingrained anti-woman bigotry of this society often refer to themselves as feminist. However, feminism is politically incapable of resolving the most basic aspects of women’s oppression because it functions entirely within the framework of bourgeois rule. Because it asserts the main division in society is between men and women rather than class versus class, feminism necessarily reflects the ideology of the politically and economically dominant class, the capitalists. The fate of many 1970s “radical” feminists, such as Anna Bligh, is instructive. Rejecting the necessary fight to overthrow the entire capitalist system, they secured careers in the Labor Party and the trade-union bureaucracy and have helped to oversee cutbacks and union-busting carried out by the ALP federally and in the states, which have particularly hit their working-class “sisters.”
In contrast to feminism, Marxism, recognising that the class question is decisive, rests on a fundamentally different, proletarian, class axis. Every real gain won by working people and the oppressed is, and will be, the result of hard class and social struggle, not attempts to pressure bourgeois politicians and the courts. We look to the power of the working class as the motor force for social progress. Our understanding of the centrality of the working class and a revolutionary perspective in fighting for the liberation of women is counterposed to the outlook peddled by reformist left groups who reinforce feminist illusions among women.
In a recent article on abortion rights, the “socialist feminists” of the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP)/Radical Women (RW) call to “trounce the bigots, once and for all, through a massive, broad-based movement,” declaring that “community organising is what has won just about every gain of working people” (Radical Women Supplement, Winter/Spring 2009). They continue:
“Radical Women calls on feminists to join together to build a united front capable of stopping the right wing and winning survival needs such as full reproductive rights, affordable housing, childcare and education, free healthcare, decent paying jobs, expanded human services and an end to imperialist war.”
Trying to square the circle between feminism, a bourgeois ideology, and socialism, the FSP/RW are in essence Laborite reformists, pushing class-collaborationist schemas. Their calls for feminist unity can only serve to tie working women to their capitalist class enemy and breed illusions in capitalist politicians like feminist Labor premier Anna Bligh, whose cops are prosecuting Leach and Brennan today. Their demands to “stop the right wing” and for classless community organising echo the Laborite pro-capitalist union misleaders, who push cross-class community campaigns and ALP lesser-evil parliamentary cretinism, burying the need for an independent class-struggle fight, including for women’s rights. The FSP/RW’s anti-Marxist call absurdly asserts that imperialist wars can be ended by a feminist united front rather than the only road forward: the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist/imperialist system through working-class revolution.
What is essential is a fight to forge an internationalist multiracial workers party to lead the working class in a socialist revolution that sweeps away this system of capitalist exploitation, racist discrimination and women’s oppression. The indispensable task of the revolutionary vanguard party, which we seek to build, is to bring to the working class the understanding that they must fight for all the oppressed in their battle to free themselves from wage slavery. The entry of women into the working class opened the way to their liberation: their position at the point of production gives them social power, along with the entire working class, to overturn the capitalist system. For women’s liberation through socialist revolution!