The New South Wales state government recently passed laws imposing bans on protests outside abortion clinics.
If you live in Victoria or one of the four other states with such bans, then you won’t have seen one of these protests for a few years. This is because, in 2016, the state government imposed a similar ban.
Still, I remember what the “protests” looked like. They were misogynistic and repellent. Theirs was a special hatred that can come only from a lifetime of internalised repression, dashed hopes and barren spiritual resources. It takes a special drive to so determinedly attempt to drag others into the pit of shame and self-loathing you’ve dug for yourself.
These tactics mostly didn’t work. Most women ignored them. But why should women be forced to stifle their disgust while exercising their right to control their own bodies? And what about the few who were bullied into continuing with an unwanted pregnancy?
There is a simple solution to this problem, and for all its faults, the Victorian government implemented it two years ago. This did not lead to the destruction of the right to protest.
As with all legislative solutions, there are better or worse options. That the NSW Liberal government has imposed a maximum one-year jail term on violators of this ban is stupid and unnecessary. Steep and escalating fines are more than sufficient.
However, in principle, there is nothing wrong with laws like this. This is why I disagree with Emma Norton’s recent comment piece.
Yet there is a much we agree on. We agree that there are far greater barriers to accessing abortion. We also agree that the right to protest has been eroded.
I also agree that the left ought to be wary of any moves that further restrict this right. After all, the Liberals and Labor are capable of staggering cynicism. It is entirely within their playbook to use progressive sentiment against progress. Tony Abbott marched at White Ribbon Day. Julia Gillard heroically stood up to misogyny and then cut payments to single mothers.
However, I disagree with Norton because her view rests on a basically libertarian attitude. Socialists are not libertarians. Our politics demand no pure-hearted opposition to everything smelling of state authority.
Yes, enforcing a no-protest zone contains an authoritarian element. But then so do Medicare and Centrelink. So do laws targeting drunk drivers. So do laws prohibiting assault, damage of property, stalking, arson, theft, extortion and so on.
Clearly socialists do not believe that crime is the main problem facing society. Nor are we fans of the police force. But we do not oppose state authority on principle.
The very principle of law (which, as Marx reminds us, is founded on an antagonistic and oppressive class structure) contains authority. And yet, we propose laws. Sometimes, we call for greater authoritarianism: we would like to see far more ruthless investigation into and prosecution of bosses whose negligence causes workplace injury or death.
Norton makes more concrete arguments than these. Her key argument is that the ban constitutes the thin end of an anti-free speech wedge. She writes:
“It is easy to imagine the laws being applied to pro-choice demonstrators or striking health workers setting up a picket line. All a judge need believe is that such actions could cause stress or anxiety to any woman attempting to access an abortion.”
There are many problems with this. The first is that the laws stipulate abortion clinics. Judges are creative, but not that creative. The second is that Labor and Liberal state governments don’t need new cover to introduce laws against pickets or protests: they generally have done so with minimal fanfare or justification. They also need little pretext to strengthen police powers.
The right to protest has been curtailed across Australia, and in no example has this been linked to laws restricting anti-abortionists. Why would they invent a conspiracy when they don’t need one?
My main objection, however, is that freedom to protest is not the main freedom in question. The freedom to access abortion is just as much a right – and one that anti-abortionists violate. To paraphrase Robespierre, liberty cannot exist without tyranny. If we aren’t willing to defend a right, it is not worth the paper it’s written on.
The most salient case in point is the desegregation of the Jim Crow South.
A few years ago, I visited the University of Mississippi. Until the 1960s, the university was a segregated bastion of “the south will rise again!” Confederate fuckwittery.
Then, under desegregation laws, James Meredith, an African-American and veteran, was admitted. He wrote personally to JFK to ask him to support his right to enrol. This was a tactic to pressure the federal government into backing up anti-segregation laws. JFK eventually assented.
On the evening of 30 September, 1962, US federal marshals, backed up by the 70th Army Engineer Combat Battalion, assembled on campus. They did so to secure Meredith’s right to enrol.
White supremacists and KKK members, led by a retired army major, also assembled – in far greater numbers. As the crowd of racists grew into the thousands, they became violent. Snipers fired shots at the federal forces. More than 300 people were injured, the vast majority federal marshals.
The following day, the marshals suppressed the riot and enforced Meredith’s right to enrol. He completed his degree in political science in 1963, at which point he was still protected daily by hundreds of troops.
This event was a turning point in the civil rights movement. Segregationists argued that their freedom to protest had been violated. In reality, this was a rare instance of the US federal government fighting for freedom by refusing to allow racists to obstruct it. If anything, the federal forces were far too delicate with the white supremacists.
The context surrounding the free access zone laws is different, as is the scale of the issue. But the principle is the same. While it is logically possible to discover unlimited tyranny in every exercise of authority, this is not how the world works.
To treat every instance of state power as an attack on freedom is to slip into schematism and ultimately, libertarianism. This is no way to determine which policies socialists support.