‘My vagina, my rules’

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?

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Jacinda Woodhead is a writer and editor. She was the first sole woman editor of Overland (2015–2019).

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  1. Thanks for this Jacinda. That’s my kind of political statement: music, dancing, pro abortion. I really like the idea of the pledge too.
    And all power to you and all for your meeting on Thursday. In solidarity.

  2. A couple of questions/statements.

    Regarding “…the only thing at stake here. It’s also autonomy – the ability to control what happens to our own bodies and our own fates.”

    1. Can you explain to me how the body of a baby in the womb IS the body of the mother? I am of the understanding that the baby in the womb has its own body?

    2. Why do you deny autonomy to a baby in the womb?

    Regarding: “Shouldn’t women have the right to decide if and when they have a baby?” I was the under the impression they already have that right. If you want a baby, have sex. If you dont want a baby dont have sex.

    3. I will try to break it down nice and simple.
    a.) Pregnancy is caused by sex
    b.) A pregnant woman carries a baby in her womb.

    c.) so do you not mean you believe a woman should have the right to end the life of a baby if she no longer wants it?

    • Wrong! A pregnant women carries a *potentia*l baby in her womb. Here’s the stages of pregnancy, according to the scientific view, not some pre-feudal superstition.

      First, there’s a sperm and an egg. When these fuse, there’s a zygote. Implanted in the uterus the zygote becomes a blastocyst. The blastocyst develops into an embryo, which, after about 20 weeks, becomes a foetus.

      18 weeks later, all going well, there is a successful childbirth and a baby is born.

      The crucial difference between the real world and yours. When the new individual is separate from the women’s body, it’s a human being. Before that, it is part of the mother’s body – and therefore hers – alone. Without jurisdiction of a patriarchal worldview like yours!

      • Ok, now we are talking about science lets get into it a little more.

        When the ‘individual’ (individual what?) is born, it does not become a human. Science is agreed that the moment we become a human being is fertilisation.

        Even Peter Singer admits this when he said “It is possible to give ‘human being’ a precise meaning. We can use it as equivalent to ‘member of the species Homo sapiens’. Whether a being is a member of a given species is something that can be determined scientifically, by an examination of the nature of the chromosomes in the cells of living organisms. In this sense there is no doubt that from the first moments of its existence an embryo conceived from human sperm and eggs is a human being (Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 2008)”

        I am still trying to understand how the body of the human being inside her, is the same as her. Considering it has completely different DNA, and in some cases, a different blood type.

        It scientific fact that she carries a human being within her.

        • You might say that, but if you do, you are misappropriating Peter Singer to then go on and argue that the human has some kind of value just because its a human – that’s the kind of argument that a religious person would make, or at the absolute minimum, someone with a strong idea of objective value (and that’s before we even get to the point of why you would value human life above others)

          You’re welcome to think that what is inside the womb is a human, but back to Singer, do you also think that it’s a ‘person’? Does the embryo have preferences, desires, complicated cognition and so on? Do you eat animals? What is in the womb is nothing like a cute baby at six months, after it has learnt things and opened its eyes and so on. Animals have preferences and desires – embryos do not. Do you think we can kill animals? There are so many things which they are capable of which embryos are not.

          Regardless of all that, you should probably read some philosophy specifically pointed towards abortion. Singer is nice for the person distinction, but Judith Jarvis Thomson has some good points on the matter which I’m going to go ahead and and and . . . Assume that you would benefit from reading!

          The question is simple – does the right to life also entail the right to use someone else’s body in order to survive? Are you allowed to attach yourself to someone else against their will for nine months just so you can survive? I don’t think so, abortion makes sense because the right to do that gives the woman a right to act autonomously and decide what happens with her body. Autonomy is pretty important.

    • “the baby in the womb”
      Whose womb? Answer that question. Who does the umbilical cord connect the foetus to? Answer that question. Answer those and you will be closer to understanding the autonomy question you seem to struggle with.

      “If you dont want a baby dont have sex.”
      Typical. Anti-woman, anti-sex.

      • The umbilical cord connects the human being within the mother, to the mother. So what? Why does that mean the woman can kill the human being within her?

        Can you please explain how my saying “If you dont want a baby dont have sex.” is anti-woman, and anti-sex? Nothing wrong with sex, as long as you understand it can result in a human being, being brought into the world, and you need to be prepared to accept that.

        I see it like this.
        1. If you dont want a baby that much, dont have sex
        2. or Have sex, conceive a human being, then kill it.

        Which one is more selfish?

    • I think the point being made is that the (hypothetical)woman never wanted the child as a result of the sex she had. Not that she had sex to get pregnant and then changed her mind and decided she didn’t want a baby, which you seem to be saying here.

  3. In actual fact the annual Melbourne pro-life march has been running for many more years than since 2009. Prior to 2009 the annual march was known as the “Freedom to be Born” march and was run by Right to Life Australia.

  4. People are not sea turtles. Are the pro life people willing to put their money where their mouths are and raise these un-wanted children?

  5. Its odd…I don’ t recall seeing those ‘ Pro-Life’ organisations at any anti-war rallies…

    Great post Jacinda.

  6. Some strange, passing strange comments here. On that subject I will say that how any society treats its women is the measure of that society. Even the local right-wing Sunday newspaper had a feature article with a commentary on unwanted pregnancy (lifted from London’s The Times), where journalist Caitlin Moran argues that forcing women to have babies they can’t afford to look after pushes them into poverty: “Here’s what that “gift” (of unwanted pregnancy) can entail: tearing, bleeding, weeping, exhaustion, hallucination, despair, rage, anaemia, stitches, incontinence, unemployment, depression, infection, loneliness. Death.” So being ‘Pro-Life’ is simultaneously being pro-death in many cases.

  7. If you were going to put in stats for how many incidents there were for violence from pro-lifers in the US, you should have also included how many violent incidents there have been from pro-choicers as well. They include running pro-lifers over with cars etc.

  8. Flash mobs look like the best fun – How I wish I could dance!

    After making my beautiful daughter a 21st birthday breakfast in bed, I’ll drag her along to the protest. You know, if I hadn’t had my abortion, I’d have had someone else instead of her. I’m sure I might have loved him/her just as much (although our financial and family circs would have been heaps harder), but that’s something I’ll never regret! Think about that young Tyson, before you break out the “what if your mum had had an abortion?” talking point.
    Most women who have abortions are also the ones who give birth.

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