Twenty years ago this week, security guard Steve Rogers was shot and killed inside the Fertility Control Clinic in East Melbourne.
Abortion rights campaigner, Dr Bertram Wainer, had established the clinic in 1973 to provide women-centred reproductive health care, including abortion. On July 16, 2001, the clinic was invaded by an anti-abortion fanatic with murder on his mind. His plan to perpetrate a massacre was thwarted by Steve and other quick-thinking, brave people.
At that time, harassment of staff and patients was a daily occurrence, and there was little interest from the authorities to address this violence against women. Today, our laws with respect to abortion have changed remarkably: abortion was formally decriminalised in 2008 in Victoria, and in 2015 legislation was introduced to create safe access zones, effectively banning abortion activists within 150 metres of Victorian abortion-providing clinics. In 2019, the High Court of Australia unanimously endorsed safe-access zones law, enshrining women’s right to access abortion with dignity, privacy and safety, and setting every Australian state on the path of decriminalising abortion and introducing similar laws.
This did not happen by accident. An army of women mobilised – in the streets, in civil society, in parliaments and in courts – to demand the right to be treated with respect.
The success of social movements is rarely acknowledged properly, and recognition is often lacking for those led by women – they should be documented and celebrated. We have done exactly that in our book Empowering Women: From Murder & Misogyny to High Court Victory, released this week. We call out the inherent misogyny of framing abortion as a vexed moral or religious problem, while highlighting diverse people working together to create a legal regime that trusts women to make decisions about their reproductive health and respects women’s inherent dignity to do so.
This is on trend: women have energetically asserted their rights, from the green wave in Argentina, to protests in Poland, to the impressive success of the Irish referendum to repeal the constitution amendment prohibiting abortion. This has correlated with a general trend towards liberalisation of abortion laws around the world. Perhaps the most notable exception to this, however, is the United States.
In Texas, a recently passed state law has banned abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy, and worse, essentially corrals ordinary citizens into becoming enforcers. This is just the latest development in a national regression of abortion rights. The right to abortion was formally recognised in the landmark decision of Roe v Wade in 1973, and the defence of this precedent has occupied the pro-choice movement since. But the reality is that state legislatures have been undermining access in all sorts of insidious ways in the subsequent decades. Now, with the Supreme Court stacked in favour of anti-choice extremists, it may be only a matter of time before Roe is overturned.
As this debate heats up, there is a growing view that focusing too much on legal precedent may have been a perilous decision for the women’s reproductive rights movement. The late American Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself argued that politically, Roe fuelled the rise of the American right by turning the issue into an ideological one. Republicans, in service of their own political ends, have galvanised around ‘the emotional heat that surrounds abortion’ observed law Professor Joan Williams. Instead of focusing our efforts on courts, and allowing abortion to become an object of political tribalism for law makers to exploit, we should seek to open up the kind of dialogue that led to the successful Irish referendum, and in our own safe access campaign. Outside of the US, it is clear that mass and diverse campaigns can work to build coalitions of support from the grass roots in favour of reproductive rights.
Australia is now a glowing example of this. Women organised in and around parliaments to invite constructive public debate about law reform, which ultimately resulted in abortion decriminalisation and safe access zones in multiple states. These discussions were challenging, but they also served to take the wind out of the sails of conservatives who seek to exploit the issue. Litigation brought by the Fertility Control Clinic was conducted strategically, with a view to conducting the case on its own terms. Ultimately the creation of safe access zones required legislative change, drafted by a coalition of women from a variety of political stripes, and subsequently endorsed by the High Court. The struggle is not yet over – access, particularly for women outside major cities, remains a significant problem. But the truth remains that we are in a much better place to agitate around these issues than we were two decades ago.
In writing this history, we have sought to pay tribute to the collective of women (and more than a few good men) who worked so hard to achieve this victory for women’s rights. It is also a tribute to Steve Rogers. He will be remembered as a man whose bravery and sacrifice catalysed a movement that ensured Australian women’s right to abortion, and their right to do so with safety, privacy and respect. Steve should never have died. But in his tragic loss, he ultimately made a tremendous difference to the lives and futures of Australian women. We can carry this legacy forward by remaining constantly vigilant in our defence of women’s right to choose and continuing to struggle to make that right a reality to women everywhere.