You would think the end days were upon us. St Mary’s Cathedral was open for 65 hours, day and night, at the start of August. The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney called on his flock to attend a continual eucharistic adoration to scuttle a piece of legislation through prayer. “I need you to be praying, to be fasting and to be contacting your MP and saying this is not good enough”, he said in a desperate online plea. Former prime minister Tony Abbott bleated about this “morally shocking ... death on demand” bill to a crowd of hundreds of right wingers.
Warren Mundine, failed Liberal candidate for the seat of Gilmore in the last federal election, lashed his New South Wales colleagues for accepting the “crazy lunatic bill”. Likening the piece of legislation to modern warfare, one MP recounted their trauma to a journalist: “It was like a well-engineered battle plan. When they were ready, they pushed the button and ‘boom’”.
What provoked these fits of moral outrage? A bill to finally decriminalise abortion, making NSW the last state in Australia to do so. It has passed the lower house 51 to 31 but has stalled in the upper house. While a woman can get an abortion in NSW, that it remains on the criminal code helps to stigmatise and discourage people seeking this important health service. Abortion is not available “on demand” as in other states; it must be agreed to by a doctor and the request must meet certain criteria. For some, it is prohibitively expensive.
Women’s rights groups, doctors and the left have been fighting to bring NSW legislation out of the dark ages for years. But a bloc of right wing Liberal, Labor and Nationals MPs have scuttled previous Greens attempts at decriminalisation. Now, sensing the end is nigh, the right is staging a final defence of the 119-year-old laws, sparing no expense. Even Sydney’s clear blue sky is a platform for anti-abortion hysteria. The city’s only skywriter, having chosen his side, scrawled “choose life” and drew a crucifix on the day the bill appeared in the upper house.
Even getting it through the lower house was a struggle. MPs proposed amendments ranging from redundant to heinous. Some tried to make abortion even more difficult. One amendment would have allowed bigoted doctors to conscientiously object to a late term abortion and refuse to refer their patient to another practitioner. A slew of other amendments tried to confuse and cast doubt on the right to legal abortion by limiting where they can be performed or requiring that doctors receive “informed consent”.
This debate has little to do with the opinions of the NSW population, which overwhelmingly supports full and broad abortion rights. No poll in the past 50 years has shown a majority opposed to abortion access in any Australian community. No poll has found more than 5-10 percent of voters opposed to abortion in all or most circumstances.
Knowing that they’re outnumbered, right wingers are trying to make their anti-woman politics palatable by dragging racist stereotypes into the mix. The real issue, they say, is that [insert demonised ethnic group here] might seek “sex selective” abortions because they hate baby girls, despite there being no evidence this is practiced in NSW. This is one of the global right’s favourite tactics: turn the tables on the left and scream “Aha! It is you who hate women because you defend migrants who hate women!” As abortion advocates have pointed out, this is a racist, nonsensical distraction. The white, Christian right are the ones pushing an anti-woman agenda, not powerless and demonised migrants. Moreover, banning so-called sex selective abortions would have dire consequences: the only way a doctor could ascertain whether sex selection is a factor in the decision is by practising racial stereotyping. It’s a recipe for racist doctors denying abortions to migrant women.
The right doesn’t care about popular opinion or the realities of this medical procedure. They are up in arms because a key plank of their culture war is threatening to give way. The hard right of politics gets a real boost out of attacking oppressed people and upholding “traditional values”. It’s why they mobilised their power and money in the marriage equality debate and why Scott Morrison is now pushing for religious exemptions allowing discrimination against LGBTI people.
The Christian church hierarchies have played an important role in denying women the right to choose. Despite the declining religiosity of the Australian population, the Christian churches still have an obscene amount of power, money and influence in Australian politics. Witness, for example, the long list of Australian politicians who came out to defend convicted child rapist cardinal George Pell. Between them, the churches control most of Australia’s private schools. The Catholic Church alone has a national wealth of about $30 billion, on which it pays zero tax. It owns at least 1,800 properties including churches, hospitals, schools, offices and even mobile phone towers. Most of the major Christian churches are deeply embedded in both the Liberal and Labor parties.
The Labor Party has played an atrocious role too. A quarter of the party’s MPs voted against the decriminalisation bill, a higher percentage than among the Nationals. Labor’s habit of allowing its members a “conscience vote” on issues of sexism and homophobia has allowed it to play both sides. While on paper Labor has better policies than the Liberals, and Labor members come out to rally for abortion rights, the party has appeased powerful bigots inside and outside its ranks by allowing members to vote against women’s rights.
Every anti-sexist who thinks abortion should be accessible, free and legal should be ready to protest to force this bill through in September. We’ve only arrived at this point after decades of pressure from below. Given the chance, politicians will cave to the bigots among them. We can’t let that happen. The right may have the ear of shock jocks and the Murdoch press, they may be richer and better connected than us, but we are many, they are few. We need to demonstrate that in the streets in coming weeks.