‘If there’s nothing wrong with abortion, if it doesn’t actually take the life of a child,’ yet another pro-life interviewee asked me, as though she’d caught me in the ultimate ethical paradox, ‘then why does everyone talk about the need to reduce the abortion rate? Why should it be rare?’
I thought about that question while sitting in a conference on unplanned pregnancy in Brisbane, along with about 150 health professionals from the field (nurses, clinic workers, counsellors, social workers), listening to the dismal facts of women’s reproductive lives in the Sunshine State.
Almost half of the pregnancies in Australia each year are unplanned, and despite the omnipresent internet, conception myths still abound: you can’t get pregnant if it’s your first time; you can’t get pregnant if you use a Coca-Cola douche, jump up and down seven times, or sneeze in quick succession; you can’t get pregnant during your period. Such myths are at least partly rooted in logic: the sperm won’t take hold if you’re tensing your abdomen while moving vigorously; Coca-Cola can kill anything; and women don’t ovulate during the menstrual phase (though it can sometimes happen).
Queensland is a state where abortion is still a crime, unless it’s performed because of genuine concern for a woman’s physical or mental health. Even though police rarely intervene, doctors are never certain if or when the procedure will test the inertia of the law, and women seeking abortion can find it hard to get. Hospitals perform around just one per cent of Queensland’s 15 000 annual abortions. Officially, hospitals are supposed to offer the option to terminate in cases of foetal abnormality or rape. The consensus at the conference was that they rarely do.
Abortion is expensive even in metropolitan Brisbane where only 45 per cent of the state’s population resides. If poor and on a Health Care Card, women pay around $450 for a surgical abortion; $400 if they are lucky enough to get the $50 assistance offered by Children by Choice, the group running the conference and the sole financial-aid organisation for women facing an unplanned pregnancy. (Other aid organisations, most of which have religious roots, will not help women fund an abortion.)
‘It was a culture shock moving from Melbourne to Brisbane,’ announced Dr Darren Russell, one of three men at the conference. ‘A big part of that was the attitude to abortion. Well, that and the attitudes to sex, fluoride and daylight savings!’ He grinned and the audience guffawed.
Russell runs a sexual health service in Cairns – the only one in Australia to also perform medical abortion, which means that the staff tries to meet the needs of HIV patients while satisfying the constant demand for early termination.
Russell was at the conference to talk about abortion access in Queensland. One of his slides compared accessing abortion in Melbourne, where it is legal and generally affordable, to accessing abortion in Mt Isa, a town where no clinic or hospital performs terminations. The nearest abortion provider is in Townsville, a ten-hour drive. But getting an abortion is more complicated than that, because Townsville doesn’t provide that many publicly funded procedures. The patient could instead opt for one of Townsville’s private clinics: if the pregnancy was before twelve weeks and relatively uncomplicated, it would cost around $750.
Cairns is a small city without a dedicated abortion clinic. Even early in a pregnancy, surgical abortions there cost about $950. Patients are only eligible for a $250 Medicare rebate, and they have to pay cash on the day. Under its proposed addition to the PBS, medical abortion, like that provided by Russell’s centre, would cost at most $72.20.
Medical abortion has its weaknesses, though. Mifepristone (more commonly known as RU-486) can only be used in the first nine weeks of pregnancy; under the PBS, its window will be reduced to forty-nine days. While most women learn they’re pregnant within twelve weeks, women living in rural areas – the majority of Queensland’s women – tend to seek help later in the pregnancy, when abortion is more costly and more complex. Another catch is the length of time the procedure takes: women undergoing medical abortion need supervision for the duration of the drug’s cycle (around twenty-four hours), a level of care most clinics can’t afford to provide. Then there is the physical pain that researchers haven’t yet been able to eliminate, a side effect that women simply have to tolerate.
Abortion access isn’t only a problem in Queensland. In the ACT – where the sole legal restriction on abortion is that a medical professional must perform it in a medical facility – there is only one private clinic. In Western Australia, abortion is legal before twenty weeks, but is only available at one hospital and three private clinics.
Terminations in Tasmania are only lawful after approval by two doctors and a bout of compulsory counselling. A bill working its way through parliament, however, proposes decriminalising abortion up until sixteen weeks (after which time abortion could still be possible, with the approval of two doctors who deem it ‘medically, psychologically or socio-economically justified’).
In other words, Queensland has, without a doubt, the worst abortion laws in Australia. It also has the second highest rate of teenage pregnancy, after the Northern Territory. And even though young people glean about 93 per cent of their sexual knowledge from school, sex education isn’t mandatory in Queensland.
Queensland has another distinction, too: it’s the only state that has charged a woman with supplying a substance to aid her own abortion. In 2010, Tegan Leach was tried under a 112-year-old law for importing and ingesting abortifacients – drugs that bring on a miscarriage.
That was a couple of years ago, but the reverberations were still being felt at the unplanned-pregnancy conference. ‘I sat in court for two weeks listening to them talk about this young woman’s periods and her intimate sexual history, all these grown men,’ one woman said during the campaign strategies workshop. ‘I felt like I was in some other time and place.’
Awe-struck, I bought a couple of T-shirts from the Children by Choice fundraising table. ‘Feminism: back by popular demand,’ one read. The other was a Rebecca West quote: ‘I myself have never been able to find out precisely what a feminist is – I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.’ I tried to overlook West’s rabid anti-communism for the good of the cause.
I caught the train to Petrie, a town I’d never heard of before, almost thirty kilometres north of Brisbane. Upon disembarking, I was blinded by the white pavement catching the sun. Waiting passengers stood still and quiet out front, like baking statues, while the vehicles in the car park slumbered.
Anne had told me to look out for a blue van. ‘It really stands out,’ she had promised in an unhurried Queensland drawl. She had insisted a taxi would be too expensive. ‘It’s fine. We can have lunch!’
‘Great,’ I’d replied, imagining myself stuck in searing country Queensland with two anti-war, pro-life activists, and my finicky, no-onion veganism. It could be a long trip back into town.
Anne Rampa is a member of Protect Life, a pro-life group with a membership of two (though it occasionally swells to a handful) that practises nonviolent direct action by blocking doorways of clinics to prevent terminations from occurring. ‘We simply sit in front of the doors and refuse to move,’ explained Graham Preston, Rampa’s Protect Life partner and (often) codefendant.
It’s a group that other pro-life factions even consider mad. Or madly ambitious. Perhaps both. When I mentioned their strategy to someone from the Australian Christian Lobby, his eyes lit up. ‘That’s not legal! Is it?’ No, I rushed to assure him, feeling guilty about supplying such groups with new tactics.
A lumbering electric blue van turned in to the carpark, looking as though it’d been sticky-taped together to make one last trip.
‘Hi!’ I said, in a bright tone intended to convey that I appreciated her collecting me and that I wasn’t at all nervous about disappearing into the outback with someone even other pro-lifers think is dangerous.
‘Hi!’ Anne replied warmly. She had freckles and long curly grey-streaked hair. A smile that filled her face.
‘I see what you mean about distinctive,’ I said and climbed inside. The air was hot and the van had no air-conditioning.
Anne laughed. ‘It runs on recycled chip oil!’
Anne, and her husband Jim, had also recently converted to their own gas; other than their phones, they were living off the grid. The family grows fruit and vegetables, and keeps bees (Jim has a honey business and a soap-making business, the results of which he sells to boutique stores in Melbourne). But it is hard to produce enough food for seven children, most of them teenagers.
It’s not only that they’re trying to live within the means of the land around them; they have also taken vows of poverty and simple living.
Anne and Jim have been involved in pro-life politics for twenty-three years, and anti-war politics longer. They identify as anarchists and are heavily influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement, a social justice campaign founded by the writer and radical Dorothy Day, also an anarchist, and Peter Maurin. It was a pacifist movement that grew out of the war-ravaged world of the Depression, and that went on to build Houses of Hospitality where the poor could find refuge, and then farming communes that aspired to provide residents with employment and the fruits of their labour. Heavily shaped by the work of the Quakers, the Catholic Workers grew in influence during the anti-war movements of the 60s and 70s when the Catholic Left was part of nonviolent direct action more generally.
‘We think we’re all responsible for the actions that we take,’ Anne told me as she drove. ‘We don’t think “It’s my job” is a good excuse to do something that is the wrong thing to do. I don’t believe that anyone has a right to decide that someone is going to die, whether they’re your enemy or somebody dangerous. So I don’t believe in the death penalty. I don’t believe in waging war. I think we have to work out ways to solve our human problems without the use of violence.’
Jesus was the original advocate of nonviolence, Anne went on: ‘Jesus said, “Love your enemies.”’
He also turned over the moneychangers’ tables, I thought. But perhaps that was more like property damage than violence.
At their house, they had no TV. One of the kitchen walls was decorated with a large cross, composed from postcards of saints.
‘So you’re a friend of Simon’s?’ Jim asked when he walked into the kitchen. His short, wiry grey hair matched his beard.
I squirmed. Jim was referring to a minister I knew vaguely from the Occupy movement, a peace activist who’d suggested I might want to speak with Anne and Jim about their activism.
‘Do you know Sarah?’ Jim asked. ‘From Simon’s church?’
I shook my head, hoping Jim would lose interest in this line of questioning. I didn’t want them to think I’d infiltrated their home under false pretences.
‘Jim never wears shoes,’ Anne confided later. I hadn’t noticed, but I’d only seen him around his own house. ‘To weddings, to court – nothing.’ She laughed, but I detected the exhaustion of an ancient domestic disagreement. ‘He says, “I don’t care about your family’s bourgeois morals.” He walks with the poor.’
It seemed a curious way to show solidarity.
But then, most of Anne and Jim’s activism seemed ideologically anomalous in the modern world, where their audacious anti-war actions might have won them allies on the Left if not for their equally bold pro-life demonstrations. Jim was one of a group of five peace activists who broke into the Pine Gap base in the Northern Territory in 2005, in a campaign I’d always admired.
‘We called ourselves Christians Against All Terrorism and said we wanted to do an inspection of the base. [We] actually wrote to the minister and said we suspected there might be some terrorist action there – because they’re involved in the bombing of civilians around the world. I rang the Terrorist Hotline ten, twelve times, telling them about this place.’
Jim sat opposite me in a blue singlet. His spindly arms gestured at a leisurely pace.
‘Anyhow, we sort of snuck in there one night. We cut through two fences and climbed on the building and took photos, which we smuggled out.’
He flashed a grin.
It’s illegal to photograph military bases in Australia, and so they were charged under the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act. It was a serious breach, one that could have resulted in seven years’ imprisonment for trespass and three for the photographs. The trials and appeals following the action consumed three years of Anne and Jim’s lives. In the end, Jim went to jail for eight days and received a fine.
‘I tend to do more pro-life actions. Jim does the anti-war actions,’ Anne clarified. ‘I don’t risk arrest if he’s got court cases pending. We don’t want to end up in jail at the same time.’
They described how their personalist philosophy means they go straight to ‘places of death’, to those who can immediately stop acts of violence from happening, rather than fighting institutions.
‘I believe in the human family,’ Anne said meditatively. ‘So we can lie down and look at the stars at night and feel a bit small, but actually what we’re looking at is balls of gas and dust and ice. And you,’ she reached out, as if to hold my hand, ‘are more miraculous than that.’
It was an unnerving technique. I cleared my throat, touched by her evident conviction that dying stars weren’t all that special. ‘So how did your pro-life actions begin?’
‘When our daughter was nine weeks old,’ Anne said, ‘Jim and I went into an abortion clinic and tried to talk to people in the waiting room about the process of abortion and what would happen if they went through with it.’
I was a bit shocked that they took their baby with them: it must have seemed like a deliberate provocation to any ambivalent waiting patients.
Perhaps Anne was a mind reader. ‘We had our baby with us, because I didn’t know what to do. She was breastfeeding. I didn’t know how long I’d be there, so I just felt I had to bring her.’
‘The whole experience must have been confronting?’ I prod.
‘Um, it was a hard thing to do. But I didn’t find people unwilling to talk – and argue with us,’ Anne smiled at the memory of their imprudence, their compulsion to do something.
Women who choose abortion, she suggested, are fractured even before that decision. They are already broken or damaged, typically by sexual abuse earlier on. That’s why they resent their child, she said, or feel incapable of loving it.
Anne also thought abortion should be illegal – an odd position for an anarchist.
She justified herself by describing the law as a moral compass. ‘In a way, I believe that homicide is against the law and that’s good, because it conscientises people. I do think abortion should be against the law. I don’t think it should be easy. Women are mistreated by making it easy. It completely undermines the feminist position, which is so often nonviolent – until it comes to abortion.’
As she continued, she became more insistent: ‘I do think we’re doing women a disservice. You wouldn’t say to a woman who’s struggling with a baby – we all understand how hard that is – and she’s feeling like she needs to go somewhere and have someone throw it off the bridge … we wouldn’t think making it easy for her is the right thing to do.’
It feels rehearsed: a learned response from years of pleading with women to alter their course. And yet, with seven kids, I believe Anne knows how hard motherhood can be. In many ways, she reminded me of a 70s feminist, with her flock of children and her house falling apart.
Anne had lost count of how many times she’d been to court for her work at Protect Life, but estimated she’d been arrested at clinics at least thirty times. ‘It’s quite a difficult thing, obviously, because only two of us in Australia are prepared to go that far, even though we all say, “A baby dies in an abortion.”’
Anne has also been to jail for her anti-abortion activism: the longest period was three weeks. Courts look more harshly on men opposing abortion, perhaps, because although Anne and her codefendant Graham (who doubles as one of the coordinators of Right to Life Queensland) faced court together countless times, Graham has served a total of eighteen months in prison. In 2012 alone, he served eight months for unpaid fines collected over sixty sit-ins from the past decade.
‘I think there’s a lot of collective guilt around the whole abortion issue, and that’s why people don’t want to bring it up,’ Jim said as we were getting ready for lunch. ‘Peter Bayliss ran the abortion clinic in Brisbane for a long time and was famous for being a misogynist. A lot of women said that.’
Bayliss was also the co-founder of the Fertility Control Clinic in East Melbourne. He and Bertram Wainer, visionaries that they were, had never struck me as feminists – well, in anything other than in their understanding of how a womb can also be a jail sentence.
I pointed out that the Catholic Church isn’t really known for its respect for women, either. Anne and Jim agreed.
‘We’ve copped a lot of hatred from the Left over the years,’ Jim said.
Anne nodded. ‘More so than the Right.’
‘But they’ve got used to us now and they don’t hate us so much anymore.’ Jim looked out at the tall trees behind his house that reach toward the sky. ‘Some people are contemptuous, but it’s not the same level of hatred we have experienced before. Every year we go hold placards at the May Day rally, mainly because we’ve got a captive audience. You know, ten to thirty thousand people marching by.’
‘A lot of whom we know,’ Anne added.
‘A lot of whom we know,’ Jim repeated. ‘A lot of hardcore lefties, socialists or whatever, used to scream abuse at us, year after year. Now it’s only the odd person who screams obscenities. But I‘m sure there are still a lot on the Left who are infuriated to see us there.’
‘It’s a bit lonely,’ Anne said.
What is it about Queensland that attracts people like Anne and Jim? Protect Life simultaneously embodies both the fringe (anarchist anti-war pro-lifers) and the mainstream pro-life ideology that’s inscribed in law (the other half of Protect Life represents the national pro-life lobby).
The state has a Bjelke-Petersen hangover, so those who happen to be Indigenous, women or unionised are even now viewed with suspicion. The wowserism of the rural conservatives still determines a lot of policy, and religious groups command an audience in the Queensland Labor and National parties, as well as among gynaecologists and the medical profession more generally.
All of that means that an organisation like Children by Choice, which has a forty-year history of helping women access abortion, first interstate and now in Queensland, has become a permanent institution.
When I visited the Children by Choice office, they asked what I’d been doing in Brisbane. I told them about Anne and Jim, the anti-war pro-lifers.
There was a heavy silence.
‘Is it only human life they believe in protecting?’ asked one of the counsellors.
‘No actually, they’re vegetarians.’
‘Catholic?’ another asked.
I nodded. ‘Yes, they talked a lot about social justice and the Catholic Worker Movement.’
She raised an eyebrow. ‘We’ve never heard of them.’
‘They visit five or six clinics,’ I said. ‘One of them went to jail for eight months last year …’
‘Oh, Graham!’ they said in unison. ‘Yes, we know Graham.’
‘He’s been at it for years. He even comes by here sometimes,’ the manager said.
‘I kind of admire that … commitment,’ the counsellor said.
‘No, I do,’ she insisted. ‘To keep at it for so long.’
The counsellor had worked there for two years. I asked if it was hard. It is, she said, particularly the financial assistance stuff.
Were there many calls about post-abortion grief, I wondered, for this was something Anne and Jim had talked about extensively.
‘Not many,’ she replied. ‘I think it’s something like 5 per cent, and even then that number is inflated, I think, because if we even speak about anything after the procedure, like her plans, then I tick the post-abortion box.’
Then she paused. ‘I think the kind of counselling they get before the operation really explains that. If they’ve been to one of the other services, the ones that tell them they’re going to go to hell or develop cancer or something, they can be quite traumatised and often ring here upset.’ She was referring to the pregnancy crisis services, religious fronts that don’t present abortion as an option.
‘But it’s all the women we don’t hear from that I worry about.’
Flying home, I think about those women.