Reproductive freedom is a precondition for equality: interview with Liz Walsh
Reproductive freedom is a precondition for equality: interview with Liz Walsh)

Red Flag recently spoke to Liz Walsh, Victorian Socialists upper house candidate for Western Metro and organiser of the 15,000-strong abortion rights rally in Melbourne on 2 July. We started by asking her what prompted her to call the rally.

LW: Firstly, shock and horror. The overturning of Roe vs. Wade is the most serious attack on women’s rights in a generation, and as a dual citizen with family in the US, it hits home hard.

The decision turns back the clock to a time when women were either forced to continue unwanted or unsafe pregnancies or were driven to terminate a pregnancy illegally. The risks associated with that are well known—being maimed, killed or, along with doctors and others who performed illegal abortions, jailed. And it brings back the idea that abortion is something that women should be ashamed of and should hide, rather than a decision they have the right to make and that is no-one else’s business. This dark past will be the nightmarish reality for nearly half of the US’s female population once state legislatures enact their anticipated abortion bans.

Two-thirds of the American population are pro-choice. But with the stroke of a pen, six rich, unelected, bigoted, ultra-right Supreme Court judges stripped millions of women of control over their bodies and therefore their lives. So much for being the land of the free! It just shows how undemocratic the US political system is.

I called the rally because I believe that solidarity matters. Global protests can give heart to people in the US to keep fighting back.

I also believe we can’t take our hard-won rights for granted. Far-right and conservative political forces in Australia are always looking to roll back women’s rights, and they now sniff an opportunity to press harder. I called the protest partly to get on the front foot against these bigots, and to strengthen our capacity to stop them if they ever dare try something on here.

Finally, I believe that when people are angry about things, they should be encouraged to act. Otherwise, it’s hard not to feel helpless or give in to despair. Victorian Socialists is all about mass action, the kind of campaigning that won abortion rights in the first place. We’re about the politics of the streets and mass involvement, and of finding ways to get people taking on the rich and powerful. Powerful people in suits doing deals behind closed doors is not how real change is won. Change happens when we force their hand and make it impossible for them to ignore us.

RF: Why do you think you got such a good response, given abortion rights are not immediately on the chopping block in Australia like they are in the US?

It was incredible to see the way the call to action really struck a nerve. It was just electrifying to be yelling at the top of my lungs with 15,000 other women and some men in Melbourne’s CBD as they carried their creative, irreverent, homemade signs.

As you say, abortion rights are not facing imminent attack here, but the response shows how important these rights are to women. It’s an issue that’s close to women’s hearts for good reason. The right to control our reproduction is central to any hope for women’s equality. Having the ability to decide if and when we continue with a pregnancy is part of asserting that we are more than baby incubators. Without this right, our access to education, to employment, to health and our very right to life are jeopardised.

Abortion rights are also this key symbol of the gains women made 50 years ago. It was an important and decisive victory of the women’s liberation movement. Doctors and others risked their lives to win it, and still face threats even in the context of legality. For many people, the assault on abortion rights raises the question of what might be next, which is also a scary prospect.

The protest I think also just became an outlet for the rage that women feel about the sexist crap they are forced to endure every day and the way that often weighs down on us. The overturning of Roe helped to ignite that broader anger that’s often just simmering underneath the surface for so many women but which we do nothing about most of the time. There are moments when that bursts to the surface.

Do you think abortion rights are secure here, and if not, what are the barriers to women having full reproductive freedom in Australia?

In most states, abortion has only relatively recently been removed from the criminal code, to be regulated by health legislation. In Victoria this happened in 2008. In Queensland it was 2018, in New South Wales 2019 and in South Australia it didn’t happen until last year. In Western Australia, abortion continues to be regulated by the criminal code, with abortions up to twenty weeks requiring the approval of two doctors and a panel of six doctors after that. We should also remember that it was only thirteen years ago that a young couple in Cairns were charged with intent to procure a miscarriage when they imported the drug used for medical abortions, Mifepristone (RU-486). The woman faced up to seven years in prison and the man up to three.

And while abortion is mostly legal, accessing abortion services is effectively a “postcode lottery”. Mostly women rely on a network of private and public clinics, but these clinics often don’t exist in regional areas. Regional and rural women have to travel long distances to access a provider and have to front up the associated costs for travel and overnight stays. It’s inconvenient and expensive. There is also a limited number of doctors who have received the training to prescribe the necessary drugs for medical abortions.

If you have a Medicare card, surgical abortions cost on average $600. Medical abortions can also cost a few hundred dollars. For poor and marginalised women, this can be a serious barrier to exercising their reproductive rights. For those without a Medicare card, like international students and people on some temporary visas, a surgical abortion can cost up to $8,000.

The protests were a chance to press for something better in Australia, to demand free and genuinely accessible abortion services. Without a properly funded and resourced public health system, the legal right to abortion is largely symbolic. 

Of course, full reproductive freedom goes beyond the right to terminate pregnancies. Real choice also depends on the provision of free, 24-hour child care, much more generous parental leave, welfare payments that aren’t below the poverty line, affordable housing, wages that keep up with inflation so that raising children is financially viable and so on. So we have much to fight for.

Is this likely to be an issue in the upcoming Victorian election?

Bernie Finn, who sits in the Victorian upper house representing the Western Metro region and who organises thousands of anti-abortionists to march in Melbourne every October, celebrated the overturning of Roe vs. Wade. He opposes abortion even in cases of rape. He was expelled from the Liberal Party for publicly airing these views, which is an indication that misogynistic religious fanaticism doesn’t have the sort of mass base and purchase here as it does in the US. Nonetheless, if he runs this November, Victorian Socialists are ready to combat his bigoted views with an unapologetic defence of women’s rights. Indeed, it’s possible I’ll be going head to head with him for the last spot in the Western Metro region.

While both of the major parties generally accept that women have the right to abortion, their ranks are riddled with anti-choice advocates, most of whom are currently keeping their heads down. I’m talking about people like Lizzie Blandthorne, the Labor member for Pascoe Vale and the new Victorian planning minister, who was a high-profile anti-choice advocate when I was at university with her in the 1990s. What’s more, without a properly funded public health system, the right to abortion is nominal. Neither major party is prepared to put in the resources needed to ensure the system is able to care properly for everyone who needs it.

Victorian Socialists will be campaigning for a massive expansion of hospitals and the wider public health system. The wealth in our society should be directed towards improving our health and our living standards, not to lining the pockets of private companies.

Victorian Socialists will also be fighting for women’s rights in other areas, such as pay, child care and aged care. We want women to have as much control over their lives as possible—that is a precondition for equality. But to be truly equal, we will need a much more far-reaching challenge to the capitalist system, a system that thrives on our oppression. We need to fight for a world where people and our rights come before the profits of the few, and that means fighting for socialism.

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