The religious conservative threat
When Victorian senator John Madigan trained his raygun-of-righteousness on the rate of ‘gender-selective’ abortion in Australia last week, the response was, largely, bewilderment: there is no evidence that the practice even occurs in Australia (making it seem more like an instance of Madigan discovering the toy of the month – the dog whistle of racism). But what’s more, his attempt to legislatively curb abortion in Victoria was hardly a sneak attack from a member of the DLP.
The original Democratic Labor Party was born from a split in the Labor Party in the 50s, during the Cold War, and was founded upon the political vision of anti-communist Catholic conservatives, such as Bob Santamaria. David Marr described Santamaria’s preoccupations (after communism in the unions and on the campuses) in his Quarterly Essay last year: ‘Santamaria deplored the Pill, homosexuality, rampant materialism, married women in the workforce, environmentalists, drugs, abortion, anarchy on campuses, economic rationalism dissident theologians, divorce without proof of guilt and the cult of the moral autonomy of the individual.’ He also had a fondness for Franco and pre-Hitler Mussolini. The party dissolved, and reformed, but the contemporary DLP still define themselves by a number of Santamaria’s core values: pro-family, pro-life and anti-market, with all the nostalgic principles and perspectives they entail.
Interestingly, these were also Tony Abbott’s political roots, before Santamaria’s influence waned. In university, Abbott belonged to the Democratic Club, a group founded and organised by Santamaria, a man Abbott described as ‘the greatest living Australian’.
Madigan won his senate seat through the strategy (or luck) of ballot preferences, many courtesy of Family First – but how can he possibly hold the balance of power following the next election, as some have suggested, when he’s unlikely to ever oppose the Liberal Party? What’s a contemporary issue the DLP and the Liberals won’t agree on: carbon tax? Refugees? Same-sex marriage? But more than that: right-wing religious conservatives hold little political sway these days, even in their own parties, and particularly when opposed to the course of neoliberalism.
This is not to write off the very real threat that a conservative like Abbott poses, but a certain perspective is required: he’s one of many, a whole party in fact, and when it comes to abortion, well, Liberals voted for the Victorian Abortion Law Reform, too.
Abbott, I think, has come to be a case of religion shaped by politics, rather than the other way round. If his religion truly shaped his political decisions, how could he be pro-war when the leaders of his church are not?
‘We simply sit in front of the door and refuse to move’
Some pro-lifers are more consistent. When I was in Queensland in January, I met Graham Preston. Graham and his wife set up the Queensland branch of Right to Life Australia in 1990. Then in 2002, with another couple (who are also antiwar activists), they founded a direct action group called Protect Life. The group sits in at clinics, with the aim of preventing that day’s scheduled abortions from occurring. ‘We simply sit in front of the door and refuse to move,’ Graham said with a note of pride, ‘and that’s what we’ve been doing for the past ten years.’
When I spoke with him, Graham had just been released after eight months in prison. He’d been jailed for not paying thousands of dollars in fines he’d amassed for refusing to move on once police were called to a clinic protest. It’s not that Graham denies he broke a law, it’s more that he thinks the law is bad, and will one day be recognised as such. ‘If you’re saying that abortion takes the life of a child,’ he explained, ‘to simply just say that and then not act in a way that reflects the seriousness of that, it’s not surprising that people don’t take you seriously.’
Graham sees life as sacred, God-given. Moreover, he and the other members of Protect Life believe they are the vanguard of the next chapter of the civil rights movement: defending those who are defenceless, who will never have a voice.
But it’s more than that. Graham and his co-activists view themselves as the last bastion against modernity – an age that continues to deem sexual liberation and free will as more important than the sacred. ‘People that are sexually active have to take responsibility for their behaviour and not allow the child to pay the prices for their activity,’ Graham told the ABC earlier this year. ‘If they’re going to be active, then people need to recognise that a child could come into the world and be prepared to look after them, not just kill them.’
In Queensland, the foetus already competes with the rights of the woman
A typical return call for a phone counselling session might go something like this:
Ring ring. Ring ring. Ring ring.
(They don’t always answer the call-back.)
Hi. Is this a good time to talk?
The counsellor will wear a pair of headphones with the mic attached, so they can pace while they talk. They might also hold a pregnancy calendar dial, used to estimate significant dates.
Well, we take the first day of your last period, so it usually ends up being two weeks on top of what those tests tell you.
Wasn’t that memorable, hey? the counsellor will possibly tease.
Have you made a decision in regards to the pregnancy?
Was it a difficult decision to come to? What I’m asking is, are they tears of frustration, or some sense of sadness about it all?
You know, half of all pregnancies are unplanned.
A lot of women think about their children when making their decision, about what it would be like for them with another child in the family – that’s normal.
The counsellor will then move onto financial matters.
Are you on health care or just Medicare?
The counsellor will have a spreadsheet open that contains names, opening hours, addresses, phone numbers, costs: a bank of assorted organisations that might be able to help the woman on the end of the line.
There, they could provide it for $450, the counsellor might say when the person on the other end of the line mentions the name of a clinic she attended a decade earlier. (One in six women in Australia will have more than one abortion – though, when I asked an abortion provider in Cairns who the women most likely to have abortions were, she replied, ‘Women who’ve had them before’). On average, in Queensland, this is how much an abortion will cost. It’s one of the more expensive states. In early pregnancy, the first trimester, it might cost up to $550, but when a pregnancy hits 12 weeks, the price climbs.
Then again, in any state in Australia, the cost rises after 14 weeks. If someone wants an abortion at 18 weeks, they can expect to pay in the thousands.
In Queensland abortion on demand is still, at least in the law books, illegal. Even though abortion is partially covered by Medicare, and even though police rarely intervene, doctors are never certain if or when the procedure will test the inertia of the law, while the majority of women seeking abortion find it hard to come by. Hospitals perform around just one per cent of Queensland’s 15000 annual abortions. Officially, they’re supposed to offer the option to terminate in cases of fetal abnormality and rape. According to health professionals on the ground, there are many instances where they don’t.
What’s astounding about Queensland – other than the fact that sex education often isn’t taught in schools but creationism sometimes is – is that, in the eyes of the state, women’s bodies are still fertility factories for national interests: a means of expanding empire, entrenching colonies, making a country once black white.
Around Cairns last year, 275 Indigenous children were taken from their families, compared to 93 non-Indigenous children, in an area where Indigenous people make up just 10 per cent of the population. Earlier this year, the Queensland Police Union proposed incarcerating and monitoring ‘at-risk’ pregnant women who can’t be trusted to put a foetus’s life before theirs.
How can we say that control over our own bodies is a right women in Australia have?
‘It’s not enough to be poor anymore’
The counsellor will then try to help this woman in Queensland work out where she is going to find the money to get an abortion. It’s part of her job.
Are you up-to-date with your rent? Are there any bills you can put off? What about the father, can he offer any support? Are there any other people – friends, family – you can borrow from? What do you spend on groceries each week?
They may well say something like, Sometimes women have to hold off on the procedure until more money comes in.
Children by Choice – an organisation that for the past 40 years has been helping women in the north of Australia with unplanned pregnancy decisions and access to abortion, that has been advocating for Queensland reproductive rights and helping educate the rest of Australia on abortion-related matters – has no guaranteed funding after June this year. For the past few years, they’ve also filled the role of financial aid organisation, one of the few in Queensland that will help women fund an abortion.
One of the staff there, who helps women figure out if they’re eligible for the standard $50 financial aid the organisation offers, confided, ‘Women have to have extreme circumstances other than just being poor to qualify for more than $50. It’s not enough to be poor anymore.’
The threat to abortion access in Australia isn’t just off in some imagined future where Abbott and Madigan eradicate abortion through a succession of Medicare defundings, because the future where women can’t afford or access abortion in this country is already here.