Speech given at Reclaim the Night Perth 2013
The connection between domestic violence and the attacks on women’s crisis services and on abortion access is something the organising committee wanted to draw out, and it’s linked to why we are having a women-only march tonight.
It’s become more forbidden for women to do anything by ourselves. (Have you noticed that even in feminism, any rare, female-only activities are seen as unfair to men?) And this has been accompanied by physical attacks on us, attacks on our legal rights to bodily autonomy, attacks on our crisis services, and fewer accessible abortion services. If we do anything by ourselves or press for rights for ourselves, this is increasingly treated as an imposition on others’ rights, even though a central part of our oppression is the denial of autonomy over our own bodies and lives. So the organising committee feels that standing up for women’s rights to be and act by ourselves is an important part of this event.
In New South Wales, politicians are trying to push through a law giving rights to foetuses of at least 20 weeks’ gestation. ‘Foetal personhood’ stands in opposition to women’s rights, because either a woman’s bodily integrity is all that matters, and women have rights over ourselves which aren’t contradicted by others’ so-called rights, or we don’t. The bill is ostensibly in response to a tragic case in which a woman in a road accident lost her pregnancy, although some legal experts say that the current laws already deal sufficiently with such cases. Certainly there are other ways in which women’s reproductive freedoms aren’t supported, but it’s possible to support women’s rights to not have our pregnancy interfered with by enhancing the rights of women – it’s the only way.
In fact what we need to do is continue the pro-choice battle so that no-one is considered to have the right to interfere with our pregnancy against our will, whether it be an abuser we know or the state which denies us either terminations or support with our pregnancies. That’s the framing we need – that no-one should interfere with our pregnancy against our will. Not that foetuses should have rights.
Right now we mostly lack the full legal or technical right to choose – a lot of Australians think that abortion has been fully decriminalised here and that it’s readily accessible. In fact, you’d be lucky to find anywhere in Australia where there aren’t impediments of some kind to accessing abortion – in some cases it’s the cost, but in many, there are simply no abortion services that women can access in their area.
Now we’re seeing this further attack, which arbitrarily declares that a foetus past 20 weeks’ gestation becomes a person. It’s unscientific and purely ideological – will certainly make life much harder for women, especially since New South Wales law still has abortion on the criminal code – but we’re being asked to swallow this as being for women’s benefit.
This move to open up the ‘foetal rights’ issue gives the green light to other reactionary elements to try policing women’s reproductive decisions. It reinforces misogyny and male control over women’s bodies generally, including the domestic violence and sexual abuse we’re protesting against, where most perpetrators are males (at least 93% of rapists are male), and most victims are women and girls.
What are some of the direct connections between domestic violence and the removal of women’s reproductive autonomy?
A California study done a few years ago on 16-29-year-old women, found that when women “experienced both reproductive coercion and male partner violence, the risk of unintended pregnancy doubled”. Other findings included:
- “Approximately one in five young women said they experienced pregnancy coercion”
- “More than a third of the women who reported partner violence — 35 percent — also reported either pregnancy coercion or birth control sabotage.”
In 31 states in the US, rapists can have custody rights over children that are a product of their rape. This means an additional way in which raping a woman gives that man power over her for life. Imagine the impact on a woman, of being forced to maintain ties, and engage in periodic negotiations, with your rapist, for the next few decades at least while your child matures.
US women have faced continual attacks on their rights and safety in most states, including the intimidation of having Tea Party representatives drumming up aggression against women by declaring that impregnated rape victims who abort should be jailed for as long as their rapists.
In Ecuador, the criminal sanctions on abortion make it so unsafe that abortion has become the leading cause of death or injury to women there. It is illegal for anyone without a mental disability to access it, even girls. As a demonstration of the link here between this prohibition and the enforced subjugation of women within the male-female sexual relations, President Rafael Correa has said he will veto any moves to allow even raped women to get abortions, and threatened to resign if his allies in the National Assembly decriminalised abortion.
Determining women’s reproductive and parenting decisions is a key way in which many women experience both our society, and our male partners, benefitting themselves at women’s expense.
There’s a reason why we’ve seen the recent increases in attacks on both funding for women’s crisis services – and these have been global attacks, not restricted to Australia – and on abortion access.
Wherever we are in the world, the stronger the systemic reliance on sex roles in which the woman is the chief domestic worker and child-rearer, the more we will be denied autonomy over our bodies, whether that be rape and other abuse by males close to us, or birth control sabotage, or the refusal of the state to provide affordable, legal and accessible abortion.
These issues are closely linked and we need to address both male entitlement to and control over our bodies, and the economic system of capitalism which relies on these gendered power structures. And the more crises capitalism experiences, the more it relies on the hierarchy of the sexes.
Capitalism has increasingly relied on the subjugation of women within the hetero family unit to ensure free provision of welfare, and free child-rearing – free reproduction of the next generation of workers. So it’s always in its interests to encourage male power over women, and to give only tokenistic support to addressing male-pattern violence against us.
When religious interests try boosting the idea of ‘foetal rights’, this ties in with the conservative view of motherhood as divine/natural. It casts women’s domestic drudgery as also being divine and natural, rather than a product of our oppression. It also creates an ahistorical view of abortion as a product of late capitalism and secularism, whereas late capitalism has in fact seen greater restrictions on abortion than used to exist in many countries, including those which were predominantly Christian.
When looking at how we fight this, we need to remember these structural reasons for the continued attacks on our bodily autonomy, because it’s not just about fighting conservative views; it also needs to be about ending a system that props itself up by oppressing women. And political parties that represent the capitalist class can’t be looked to as a solution – the Australian Labor Party, for instance, has been in government so many times in its existence, but continually refuses to make abortion fully decriminalised and accessible. It’s important that we don’t let it off the hook by describing it as ‘gutless’ – the fact is that it’s just not designed to represent women, but instead the capitalist class. It’s not our saviour; we need to look to ourselves as an organised group. The oppressed, organising by ourselves on mass, are the only agents that have ever forced real change, and we’re the only ones that can create a new system.
Reclaim the Night! Reclaim our lives!
 ‘Scarlet Letters: Getting the History of Abortion and Contraception Right’, by Ranana Dine, is a fascinating account of abortion accessibility and attitudes in the USA in early and middle-capitalism. It indicates various factors as leading to the restrictions on abortion, citing:
changing social, class, and family dynamics in the early 19th century. Americans in the Victorian era thought abortion was a problem brought on by upper-class white women, who were choosing to start their families later and limit their size. Increased female independence was also perceived as a threat to male power and patriarchy, especially as Victorian women increasingly volunteered outside the home for religious and charitable causes.
During the mid-19th century, American physicians also began to battle “irregular” doctors, such as homeopaths and midwives, in an attempt to assert the authority and legitimacy of male-dominated scientific medicine. To tackle these irregular doctors, the “scientific” physicians attacked legal abortion because it was midwives and other “unscientific” medical practitioners who safely performed the procedure. White men were also concerned by shifting ethnic and racial dynamics in the United States, worrying that the low birthrate of the white upper class would lead to racial inferiors and un-American immigrants overrunning the country.
Together, a coalition of male doctors backed by the American Medical Association, the Catholic Church, and sensationalist newspapers began to campaign for the criminalization of abortion. By the turn of the century, this coalition had largely succeeded in limiting women’s medical choices.