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Fight to Defend and Extend Abortion Rights in Australia!

Roe v Wade shows that these victories need to be defended over and over. Our rights can and will be taken back by the establishment when it suits them. And when abortion rights are won, there is no guarantee that abortion is accessible.

Meredith Jacka and David Elliott -- ISA in Australia -- first published on

Protests have broken out across the US against a threat to abortion rights from the US Supreme Court. Plans were leaked to overturn Roe vs Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that gave federal legal rights to seek an abortion. ISA members in the US have led and been involved in protests and sit-ins to defend abortion rights.

Around the world a rising wave of feminist struggle has seen victories on abortion rights, with abortion decriminalised in Mexico in 2021, Aotearoa/New Zealand and Argentina in 2020, South Korea in 2019 and Ireland in 2018. These victories are the result of pressure placed on the establishment by working class people.

But the attack on Roe v Wade shows that these victories need to be defended over and over. Our rights can and will be taken back by the establishment when it suits them. And when abortion rights are won, there is no guarantee that abortion is accessible.

There are deep problems with access to healthcare for women and trans people in general. Research has found that women are more likely than men to be misdiagnosed when it comes to ADHD, autism and heart issues. There is a chronic, intentional lack of funding for research into health conditions that mostly affect women, especially around reproductive health. Women and trans people often find it difficult to find doctors that will take their concerns seriously.

In 2019, according to SPHERE, (the National Health and Medical Research Council’s Centre of Research Excellence in Sexual and Reproductive Health for Women in Primary Care), large parts of the country were in abortion deserts. 30% of people who can get pregnant lived in an area where no GPs or pharmacists provided medical abortion services, the figure jumped to 50% of people living in remote Australia. Their research indicated that “only 703 out of 34,000 practising GPs are certified to deliver MTOP (medical termination of pregnancy). It is also unclear how many of these GPs are actually delivering this service.”

The pandemic then made abortion even harder to access, with the closure of regional abortion clinics in Queensland and New South Wales.

A study by Ronli Sifris and Tania Penovic in Women’s Studies International Forum found that access to abortions varied enormously across the country. The practice of travelling to escape more restrictive or expensive abortion regimes was common. They found that the price of medical abortions could range from $6.50 to the $770 charged at one regional Queensland clinic. Some providers charge as much as $7,500 for later term surgical abortions.

Abortions through the public system can be difficult to access because they are concentrated in cities, with most abortions performed in the private system. One provider told researchers,

“We are just a little six-doctor GP practice with one prescriber of medical abortion and we are the single biggest provider of medical abortion in Victoria, outside of the Royal Women’s [Hospital]. Why is that? I can’t explain it, except that we bulk bill everybody, so the cost is very low. I think cost is a huge factor. I don’t know how the clinics that charge people four, five, six hundred dollars for a medical termination, I don’t know how they justify it, to be frank.” Women’s Studies International Forum, Volume 86, 2021

Doctors who ‘conscientiously object’ to abortions often put barriers in the way of people seeking them. Others have reportedly been forced to stop providing abortion services in some regional areas after receiving death threats.

The South Australian government only removed abortion from its criminal code last year, but has been dragging its feet in actually removing hurdles to people seeking abortions. A special government committee was convened to implement decriminalisation, but, according to Brian Peat of the AMA, “That group … keeps being cancelled and not meeting and not actually making any progress.” (InDaily, 3/3/2022)

He also commented, “people have been moved from eight to 11 weeks (gestation) because they’ve had to wait, a lot of bad things are happening that are not ideal." Wallaroo GP Anna Kearny told the ABC, “We still have to make women travel for 2.5 hours and then to tell them they have to see a second doctor, then we have to mess around at the hospital to administer the medication.” (ABC News, 4/3/2022)

In 2019 the New South Wales state parliament voted to overturn a century old ban on abortion. Young people, particularly young women, led the charge and reignited the abortion rights movement in NSW. High school students organised a 2000-strong rally that marched through the city centre. This movement, coupled with the launch of a coalition of community groups, including the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association, helped apply pressure to the state Liberal government to remove the ban.

Tasmanian public hospitals only recently began offering abortion services, after the last private clinic in the state closed four years ago. Backwards regulations are still in place in many areas. Until very recently, pregnant people in the Northern Territory had to consult with at least two doctors before getting an abortion between 14 and 24 weeks into a pregnancy. Excessive consultation is still required after 24 weeks in the NT, and 20 in WA. This issue is compounded for Indigenous people, LGBTIQ people, people with disabilities, migrants and refugees.

This persistent over regulating, and outright denial of abortions comes from historical and ongoing regulation of women’s and gender diverse people’s bodies by the state.

Why does the state want to control our bodies?

The issue at hand is one of bodily autonomy. Or rather, who controls our bodies, the state or ourselves?

The debate is often hidden behind an existential question of ‘when a life becomes a life.’ But this debate is a diversion from the real issues, which centre around the role that women play in society and the fact that they are treated as second-class citizens.

Denying access to abortion is undeniably misogynistic. It is about controlling women and gender diverse people’s bodies and their sexuality. It is used to shame women who have sex for pleasure. It is used as a means of repression and it is linked to preserving the rigid, traditional role that women play within the nuclear family, and capitalism more broadly.

In capitalist society the unpaid labour that women perform in the home is key to maintaining the economic and political system. Women are encouraged, and often forced, to play the role of unpaid housekeepers, carers of the elderly and the sick, and emotional nurturers of this, and the next generation of workers.

Restricting access to abortion and perpetuating a culture of guilt is a highly effective tool for governments and employers alike who want to avoid paying for these costs.

Working class people of all genders need to wage an unashamedly pro-choice battle in order to gain control over our bodies, our lives and our society.

Legalisation isn’t enough — we need to fight for full access to healthcare

Being pro-choice means fighting for free and accessible medical and surgical abortions on demand in every state. Fully covered by the public health system, provided in a culturally appropriate way, available in all hospitals and accessible to those living in regional and remote areas. It means fighting for free and accessible contraception, available to people of any age.

Being pro choice means fighting for comprehensive, evidence based, consent focused, LGBTIQ inclusive sex education in primary school, secondary school and beyond.

It means struggling for a world where people who can get pregnant exercise full control over their bodies. They should choose if, how, and when they will have children. This means that we also need to fight for free, accessible and appropriate pre and postnatal care.

We need to fight for free childcare, and free education, from early childhood to university. We need to fight for affordable housing, and free healthcare.

To truly choose, the economic burdens of parenthood need to be removed. This must also include fighting against any involuntary sterilisation and a culture of forced child removal. We need to fight the specific barriers that are placed in the way of Aboriginal people accessing healthcare.

Real choice also requires women to have full equality in the workplace.

The union movement needs to genuinely take up the fight for women’s and LGBTIQ liberation. The trade union and labour movement needs to fight for equal pay for work of equal value, which would include scrapping youth wages. It needs to fight for extended parental leave and liveable welfare payments for all.

For socialist feminists, this means that while we need to fight for everyone to have access to free and safe abortions within their own communities, we also need to fight for a different kind of system. One that prioritises human need and does not seek to profit from our unpaid labour, our bodies or our emotional investment.

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Matt Damon

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