Connecting the attacks on abortion access and the attacks on our bodies

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.[1]


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!

[1] ‘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.


Reclaim the Night confronts CHOGM

Virginia Brown
Reclaim the Night Collective*, Perth

We’re expecting a great, egalitarian festival-forum of nations headed by a woman in Perth in October, so this must mean women have equality, right?

The official publicity about the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) gives no hint of the violent anti-women dynamics of the nations of the so-called Commonwealth. This alliance bills itself as a mutually-beneficial partnership of democracies. And CHOGM, the Australian government assures us, “will provide an opportunity for Commonwealth leaders to meet in Australia to discuss world issues relevant to building a strong and secure future for all”.

The question is, given the track record of these leaders – why should we abandon women’s rights to them? And what are the facts of how this British-Empire-descended alliance works for women?

Although 40% of the global workforce, women receive 10% of the world’s income and own 1% of the world’s property. The Sept 18 Wall Street Journal noted that this is despite women accounting “for more than half the world’s university students, and 60 countries have more young women than men in universities”. Globally, one in three women has been sexually assaulted or beaten.

These problems are also part of the Commonwealth; major disparities exist between levels of gender equality and measures of absolute rights for women in its nations.

New Vision reported in 2007 that: “In real terms, women in the richest [Commonwealth] member state earn 70 times more than women in the poorest member state. An average Australian woman can expect to earn about $25,000 (sh42.5m) a year. In comparison, her counterpart in Sierra Leone has an average income of only $353 (sh600,000) and in Mozambique $482 (sh820,000).”

In the 2010 Global Gender Gap Index rankings (assessing countries’ equality between men and women in various measures, with first place representing the highest overall equality), South Africa scored at 10th place, in comparison with the much lower rankings of Mozambique (22nd), Australia (23rd) and Singapore (56th). These rankings reflect the poor participation of richer countries on some measures of gender equality. For instance, in Kenya and Mozambique, women earn an average of four-fifths of men’s income, lower in absolute terms than the average income of women in Australia and New Zealand, but a higher percentage of men’s earnings.

In Australia, 93% of perpetrators of sexual assault are male (National Crime and Safety Survey, 2002). More than four out of five victims of sexual assault are women and girls. However, a 2004 Victorian report found that prosecution results from only 1 in 6 reports to police of rape, and less than 1 in 7 reports of incest or sexual penetration of a child.

The United Kingdom, at least the symbolic leader of the Commonwealth, has one of the worst records for repression of women. In May this year, its Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke sparked calls for his resignation with his claims that not all rapes are “serious”. In a nation where the conviction rate for reported rape is 6.5% despite false rape reports being very rare, and an estimated 95% of rapes are unreported, this reinforces the message that women should not bother reporting rape. The UK is increasingly upping the ante by jailing some women whose reported rapes did not result in a conviction.

Slashing anti-violence services

With a combined gross domestic product of US$10.6 trillion (three-quarters of this spread between its wealthiest nations; India, the UK, Canada and Australia), the Commonwealth members spend a tiny percentage on anti-misogynist violence services, and treat that as too much.

In Australia, an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare survey released in June found that women still comprise 62% of clients accessing government-funded homelessness services, with domestic violence being a particularly strong reason for this. Despite it also finding that that increasing numbers of Victorian women are sleeping in their cars and accessing other homelessness services, the Federal government has scrapped funding for a successful personal alarm system in Victoria.

Federal funding cuts in this year’s budget to anti-misogynist violence services have meant the reduction in operating hours and services of the Women’s Legal Service (Qld) as of October, and the slashing by 12.1 million over 5 years of funding for anti-domestic violence services in regional, remote and rural communities.

In New Zealand, government ‘reprioritisation’ of funding (a cut of $800,000) has meant “an effective cut for services such as Women’s Refuge, Te Rito Family Violence Coordinators, and advocacy services for children who witness family violence”, according to the Green Party, despite the Feb 22 earthquake having exacerbated the demands for these services. 2010 had already seen an 11% increase in crisis calls made to the Women’s Refuge, and more than double the number of calls made by the Refuge to family violence victims seen by police than in 2007.

Clearly, the violent repression of women extends also to government attacks on anti-violence services.

These figures are stark, but when do we ever hear about these cosy meetings and collaborations between Commonwealth governments being guided by concerns about the women’s rights violations endemic to them all?

The ‘Commonwealth’ arose on the colonisation and oppression of millions, indigenous women in particular, who have faced mass rape as a tool of colonialism. The brutalities of the British Empire have morphed into the brutalities of the Commonwealth’s late capitalism. In Canada, where First Nations women comprise less than 4% of the population, the figure of about 600 murdered and gone missing over the last three decades has seen little official resourcing into these killings. The Native Women’s Association of Canada found more than two-thirds of those to be murder cases, and believes that due to the absence of a national database of missing persons and inconsistent police records, the real numbers could be much higher. These women have not only been victims of misogynist and sexual violence, but also of a racist system which sees this disproportionate victimisation as unworthy of attention. Nearly half the homicides of First Nations women are unsolved, in contrast to the overall homicide clearance rate of 84%. The British Columbia Missing Women Commission of Inquiry – finally initiated last year but criticised for being unwilling to meet with the women’s families or those who have had “close calls” – was told that police in that area stop cars to investigate illegal fishing, but not missing Aboriginal women.

Australia’s legacy of European colonisation and dispossession is no less stark for Indigenous women. The 2007 Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators report found that: “In 2004-05, in [Qld, WA, SA and the NT], Indigenous females were 44 times as likely to be hospitalised for assault as non-Indigenous females.” A report by the Australian Institute of Criminology’s Jenny Mouzos in 1999 found that the homicide rate for non-Indigenous women was 1.1 per 100 000, whereas the rate for Indigenous women was 11.7 per 100 000.

Attempts to buy feminists off

In an attempt to distract attention from these issues and promote the Commonwealth as a positive agent of change, the CHOGM website is advertising an Empowering Women to Lead dinner with “limited places” for the day before CHOGM, with Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Australian Governor-General Quentin Bryce and other government and business leaders.

These sorts of meetings distract attention from the systemic nature of women’s oppression by suggesting that women ‘leading’ within the parameters of the system (and whose political activity has not improved women’s rights) can substitute for systemic change, and function to coopt opposition amongst women. But there is resistance to being bought off this way. Earlier this year Denise Marshall, head of a leading UK women’s service, returned the OBE she received in 2007 for services to disadvantaged women, publicly stating that the government’s cuts to organisations such as hers, which assists women trafficked into prostitution or victims of violence, will leave many unable to function. And more significantly, although women’s rights struggles in the Commonwealth are mainly at a much lower point than they were several decades ago, opposition to misogynist violence and victim-blaming continues to be one of several issues mobilising supporters of women’s rights, whether via ‘Slutwalks’ or Reclaim the Night.

This year, Reclaim the Night (RTN), an annual march by women on the last Friday in October to assert women’s right go freely without fear of rape or violence, will coincide with the opening day of CHOGM, October 28.

Given the promotional circus around CHOGM that is designed to disarm activist groups and disguise the Commonwealth’s support of powerful elites at the expense of the oppressed, Perth’s RTN Organising Collective is making opposition to CHOGM one of its central points this year. The Collective is also supporting the United March on CHOGM to take place at 10am on that morning and initiated cross-promotion of the two events, to broaden the support for the two important protests’ issues.

The RTN Collective made a conscious decision to continue educating ourselves about CHOGM’s role in the lead-up to Oct 28, and this has been very useful in developing our collective understanding of how the Commonwealth fits into current imperialism.

Today, its powerful elite reinforce vast inequalities between the rich and poor around the world, using women’s oppression, racism and warmongering to pursue their aims. The riches achieved by directly oppressing the former colonies are now used to continue extracting wealth via other means, including by empowering conservative, anti-women governments that are willing allies to imperialist nations wanting to increase their dominance of markets and resources or defeat progressive movements that post a threat to their interests.

The oppressive relations which trample over women’s rights for the benefit of big business receive support from the governmental heads attending CHOGM. In the cases of the Prime Ministers of the UK and Australia, this support is imperialist, acting in the interests of a handful of powerful families and corporations around the globe to wage brutal war and occupation on Iraq and Afghanistan to attain oil and profits, elevating misogynist sectors and assaulting women’s freedoms and living standards in those countries, as deemed useful. The ‘family code’ of the current Afghanistan regime sanctions spousal rape and child marriage.

It is for all these reasons that it is crucial to build events specific to women’s rights, as well as promote solidarity between groups campaigning around other sorts of oppression.

What does it mean when the vast inequalities of global wealth distribution mean women hold 1% of the world’s wealth, but even detailed critiques by activists targetting these powerful elites make no mention of this? Activism on the fronts of climate justice, opposition to war, racism and homelessness is disproportionately necessary to women. But action on these fronts alone does not address the many specific forms of oppression women face, nor advance consciousness about women’s oppression. Nor does it combat the sexism that has resulted from decades of demobilised feminist activism. It is common for feminists to be treated as though their activism is motivated by wanting women to be the oppressors. Feminists encounter sexist bullying from people who think their activism is bigoted and have no notion of the scope of women’s oppression.

Winning women’s rights requires the building of a conscious movement aimed at liberating women.

Reclaim the Night Perth: Oct 28, 5pm Cultural Centre, Northbridge. Bands, protest and march to the CBD. Supportive men encouraged to line the march route and assist with publicity.

* The Reclaim the Night Collective has members with different political ideas and approaches – this article was written by just one of us, although benefitting from the ideas of all. We unite in opposing the forces represented by the ‘Commonwealth’ and in demanding:

End violence against women!
No to rape and sexual harassment!
No to CHOGM:
Cease funding war and exploitation
stop the cuts to women’s refuges,
increase funding to women’s refuges and rape crisis services!

Additional useful reference on violence towards women in Australia:
Mouzos, J., and Makkai, T. Findings from the Australian Component of the International Violence Against Women Survey (IVAWS). Published by Australian Institute of Criminology.

Copyright © Virginia Brown October 2011. Feel free to repost for non-profit purposes and without alteration so long as this article URL: is included.