As a younger white, middle class feminist I used to almost relish the fact that abortion is still technically illegal in NSW. It was a fun fact to fling out at not-so-dedicated (or time-rich) friends and even at my mum; after all, it was a reminder that my cause was still relevant and tangible, because, you know, reproductive autonomy is a serious right, right? And of course being a very privileged feminist, illegal abortion was both serious and not serious: I had never met anyone who had been refused an abortion, or couldn’t afford one or, god forbid, anyone who had been charged with a criminal offence.
I definitely didn’t interrogate the reasons why abortion is still a crime in our state beyond the answers that had came all too easily to me at the time – patriarchy, #yesallmen, yuck, male doctors. If I had, I might have realized that legal and affordable abortion is not the only obstacle, or even the most important one, to people with a uterus achieving autonomy over when/if and how they reproduce.
While political and scientific discourse frames and reframes reproductive rights as solely a ‘Women’s Issue’, this obscures the web of connections that link the regulation of people’s reproduction to other policies of control. It also obscures the role white middle-class women (like myself) have had in eroding many people’s reproductive rights.
In Australia specifically, it was eugenicists (many of whom were also Australia’s first feminists) between 1900 and 1930 who first campaigned for legalized abortion. Their ideal of ‘Scientific Motherhood’, aimed to secure the complete reproductive autonomy of white, middle-upper class women, while at the same time forcing sterilization upon Aboriginal women and women with disabilities.
As Angela Davis illustrated in her Women, Race and Class suffragettes all over the world argued that making birth control a privilege for some and a duty for others would be an effective method of securing White Supremacy.
Forced sterilization was never made official Australian Government policy but it has left its mark nonetheless. The last recorded case of sterilization abuse in an Aboriginal community took place in 1988, however, Aboriginal academic Larissa Behrendt says there is anecdotal evidence coerced sterilization of Aboriginal wom*n still persists today. Removing children from Aboriginal families achieves similar goals to sterilization, fracturing intergenerational Aboriginal communities and reinstating colonial family structures. As Amy Mcquire reported for New Matilda, ‘Care and protection’ orders pertaining to Aboriginal children have increased four-fold in the last nine years, with the numbers of children being placed with non-Indigenous carers increasing also.
The removial of children from Aboriginal families is a central reproductive rights issue because the desire to reproduce (white) race underlies the consistent denial of reproductive rights in this country. Malcolm Turnball couldn’t have explained it better when he bemoaned decreased fertility rates as the ‘decline of The West.’
“It would be a remarkable irony indeed if at the peak of our prosperity and technological achievement, the human race, or at least the more developed parts of it, lost the will to reproduce itself.”
Malcolm identifies the central panic behind Tony Abbott’s so-called ‘Abortion epidemic’: the impending and growing need to source workers who are not from ‘The West’ and therefore not part of “the most developed parts of the human race”. This concern is based on the same eugenic premises underlying the White Australia Policy – countries are not ‘developed’ or ‘under-developed’, people are.
The constructed frontiers, visibilised by Malcolm’s statements, stem from racism but also extend beyond it. Just as the White Australia Policy included clauses to restrict the immigration and reproduction of people with disabilities, legal and illegal forced sterilisation of wom*n with disabilities occurs at exceptionally high rates in Australia today, compared with the rest of the world. Heinous in itself, this practice helps “cover up” sexual assaults experienced by girls and wom*n with disabilities. These wom*n experience the highest rates of sexual assault in Australia, followed by Aboriginal wom*n.
Practices that impinge on reproductive autonomy such as the removal of children and forced sterilisation also extend to the lack of positive rights in Australia, such as access to affordable childcare and healthcare (Medicare is restricted by visa status) as well as vague laws surrounding surrogacy and parenting rights. These circumstances suit the exclusion of poor people, single parents, new immigrants and queer people from society’s ongoing reproduction.
Yes, gaining legal and affordable abortion will contribute to reproductive autonomy in Australia, Pro-choicers should be aware, however, that leaving eugenic and discriminatory policies unchallenged will ensure the ‘choice’ to raise children or not will only ever be another privilege enjoyed by a privileged few.