A few Sundays ago, there was a pro-choice flashmob in Federation Square. As far as political statements go, the event was fairly innocuous.
The seemingly spontaneous[i] dance was organised by Reproductive Choice Australia (RCA), an association founded by Leslie Cannold (author of The Abortion Myth) and Cait Calcutt (who works at the indefatigable Children by Choice).
We – the hundred or so flashmobbers – all turned up by 11am, wearing our Abortion – a fact of life: let’s end the stigma t-shirts, and bopped along to ‘Dog Days Are Over’ by Florence and the Machine. During the thirty-second break in the track, dancers crouched, a sea of white backs with the same black printed invitation repeated on each: Take the pledge.
The RCA pledge is about abortion shame: pledgers promise to not shame women about abortion and to not stand by, silent, when they see or hear others doing the shaming.
We performed the dance three times and dispersed 15 minutes later.
It is impossible, however, to make such a public political statement in Australia (or the United States, or Great Britain, or Israel, or most other countries) without meeting calculated counteraction.
The pro-life[ii] protesters who appeared that Sunday had gone to a lot of effort to coordinate a cheer-filled opposition to the flashmob. The group of 25 wore ‘Choose Life’ t-shirts and held strings of bright yellow balloons decorated with a handwritten ‘LIFE’ and smiley face – 60 puffed-up affirmations.
‘Life, Choose LIFE,’ they chanted with megaphones, followed by, ‘Abortion hurts women,’ and ‘Human rights for babies too.’ The point was to drown out the dance. It was a battle to capture the public imagination, with the winner whoever made an impression on passersby.
At a reasonably civil protest, it can be easy to overlook what’s actually at stake in the abortion debate. In the US, for example, there have been 6461 recorded counts of violence by pro-life protesters since the mid-70s, including murder, attempted murder, bombing, arson, invasions, acid attacks, anthrax threats, burglary, trespassing and stalking.
Such violence has never been as common in Australia. The sole recorded murder is that of Steve Rogers at the East Melbourne Fertility Control Clinic in 2001, but there have been other acts of violence too – bombings, stalking, trespass. There is in fact still a daily protest presence outside the East Melbourne clinic, where pro-lifers hold a near-constant vigil, and try to dissuade women from entering the health clinic. Staff are frequently harassed and referred to as ‘murderers’, as are pregnant women.
But the welfare of abortion providers isn’t the only thing at stake here. It’s also autonomy – the ability to control what happens to our own bodies and our own fates. Shouldn’t women have the right to decide if and when they have a baby, just as women (should) have the right to decide if and when they end a relationship or if and when they change jobs? Each is a life-shaping decision, for the interim anyway.
The Saturday following the flashmob, there was the annual March for Babies in Melbourne. This year’s attendance was somewhere between 2500 and 3500, slightly down on previous years, while the counter-rally, largely organised by the Campaign for Women’s Reproductive Rights, was slightly up, at about 250 protesters.
The march started in 2009, the year after the abortion law reform passed in Victoria (which made abortion legal if performed by a qualified medical professional until 24 weeks of pregnancy – and despite the pernicious myth, these late-term abortions are quite rare). The rally is the handiwork of Bernie Finn, the Victorian MP for the Western Metropolitan region, who tours the country speaking to the evils of abortion, and has never reconciled himself or his constituents to the changes in Victorian law.
Abortion and women’s reproductive rights are significant issues for me. But they are also a microcosm of society more broadly, and the continued attempts to limit women’s choices, whether they be economic or educational or about being able to raise a child alone or to not raise one right now.
The activities above and recent events, like the overwhelming turnout for the Jill Meagher rally and last weekend’s Reclaim the Night march, all lead to the same persistent question: what do we do next?
Just last week a study was published that found in 70 countries, feminist organisations have been the most successful at effecting positive, material changes in the lives of women. So next Thursday night, some of us are attending an open meeting that will consider potential feminist actions around Melbourne.
We’ve got a lot of support so far, from individuals such as Eva Cox, Jo Wainer, Monica Dux, Shakira Hussein, Marieke Hardy and Karen Pickering, and groups like the NTEU, the NUS, 3CR, Radical Women, Scarlet Alliance, the Women’s Domestic Violence Crisis Service, and many more. (If you’d like to add your support, visit our Facebook page or email us.)
As that brief list shows, there’s going to be a lot of different political interests and opinions present. But the point of the meeting is for everyone to talk about the ways different communities experience sexism and see if we can collectively agree on an action or campaign for fighting some of that sexism in Melbourne.
Hope to see you there.
What: Melbourne Feminist Action Open Meeting
When: 6.30 pm Thursday 1 November
Where: The Jenny Florence Room, Ross House, 247 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
[i] In reality, most of us had rehearsed at Melbourne University in the fortnight leading up to the performance. Plus, there was a practice tutorial on YouTube.
[ii] There is a lot of debate surrounding the terminology here. There’s ‘abortion’ or the more clinical, less baggage-dragging ‘termination of pregnancy’; ‘pro-lifers’ or ‘anti-choicers’ or ‘anti-abortionists’ or just plain ‘antis’, etc. Some activists even reject the term ‘pro-choice’, which is seen as a conservatisation of a possibly radical politics about women’s autonomy. Personally, I think none of the terms are accurate and stick with pro-choice and pro-life because they’re the most familiar. I also refute the idea that anybody should have to begin a discussion about abortion by arguing that they are for life – who’s against life?