Life, liberty and legality: why NSW is locked in a stalemate over decriminalising abortion

We joined the crowds at a pro-choice protest and pro-life march on The Day of the Unborn Child at St Mary’s Cathedral.

Half an hour before the rallies are set to start, tensions are already brewing between the two camps at St Mary’s Cathedral. A colourful congregation of twenty-somethings — mostly women, mostly students — have formed to the side of the cathedral’s splayed sandstone steps to protest the Day of the Unborn Child. As a commemoration of the day Jesus Christ was conceived in Mary’s womb, the Day of the Unborn Child is not inherently political. But since the 90s  its meaning has changed, and it is now regarded as a day to “defeat the scourge of abortion across our land”.

For the churchgoers at St Mary’s, the day is marked by a “prayerful march” from the Church to Parliament House — a diluted protest of hymns and Amens. But for those who claim ‘bodily autonomy’ as their gospel, it is an opportunity to preach, megaphones in hand, for the right to an abortion.

Many of the protesters hold hand-painted signs with slogans that roll off the tongue: “get your rosaries off my ovaries”. One of the male students who has tagged along mutters to a friend hovering at the edge of the group: “They’ve fucked themselves over with this, because inside [the church] they’re being positively lovely. These guys are acting like a bunch of…”

The protesters talk quickly, their eyes darting up to the Cathedral’s entrance where a small row of men has formed in front of the double oak doors,,  their blue shirts emblazoned with a “Sons of St Michael” slogan. Tourists dash up and down the stairs flashing peace signs at a camera, oblivious to glares being exchanged over their heads. Armed police surround the perimeter of the square. Then all at once something shifts, a protester breaks ranks, and the group starts to move.

Protestor holding up a hand-painted, purple poster that reads: "My body my right", in front of St Mary's Cathedral
Protestors carry hand-painted sign, featuring rhyming slogans that roll off the tongue

At the Cathedral’s side, Greens MP Mehreen Faruqi addresses the contingent of a hundred protesters.

Greens MP Mehreen Feruqi standing at the top of St Mary's Cathedral's steps with a group of brightly coloured protestors, who are holding hand-painted signs and megaphones
Greens MP Mehreen Feruqi addresses protestors on the Cathedral’s steps

Faruqi is a pertinent choice for guest speaker: she plans to debate her bill to decriminalise abortion and provide safe access to clinics in NSW Parliament next month. Presently, abortion sits in a legal grey area. It is currently unlawful under the NSW Crimes Act and the current availability of abortion in NSW hinges on a 1971 court decision that holds abortion lawful where a doctor believes it necessary for economic, social or medical reasons. Legality is therefore based on the doctor’s judgment, not the pregnant woman’s. There has been a nation-wide move to legalise pregnancy termination: last week the Northern Territory decriminalised abortion. NSW and QLD are the last two states resisting legislative change.

With legality shrouded in confusion, access remains a key issue. Faruqi quotes a Queensland counsellor: “If you have found it easy to access an abortion you are lucky, probably white, well-off and live in a city.”

“Many GPs in NSW don’t actually perform pregnancy termination,” Faruqi says. “It is privatised, it’s expensive, and access is really difficult, especially for regional and rural women.

“I’ve been to Albury so many times: there is just one reproductive health clinic there that serves a huge area, and the doctor actually flies in every Thursday from Melbourne… even then, there’s a massive gauntlet of so-called pro-life protestors outside. They even go to the length of handing out plastic foetuses.

“When I talk to people about this, most of them think that these disgusting tactics only happen in ultra-conservative areas of the USA, not in 21st century NSW. But this is exactly what is happening, and it’s making it harder and harder for women to access a basic right and a medical procedure.”

“NSW has had, and still [has], conservative governments and politicians, and perhaps that’s why there has been little action on decriminalising abortion in NSW,” Faruqi later tells Honi. “The way to change the minds of politicians is for the community to take charge of this issue. Societal and legal change always comes from ‘people power.’”

But to glance around the protest is to observe the obvious: the crowd lacks the critical mass necessary to pressure legislative change. Within the group itself, the rhetoric deployed is often scattered or confused.

“You know what is terrible about this society,” Katie Thorburn, one of USyd’s Women’s Officers, shouts through the megaphone. “This week I was told I have to get out of my house because a landlord wants the house back. This is so ridiculous – that society allows landlords to kick me out of my house, but I don’t have control over what goes on inside my own body.”

The crowd cheers in encouragement, either unaware or unwilling to acknowledge that such an
analogy could be easily deployed to argue against their very point.

A protestor, walking ahead of the camera, with a shaven head is wrapped in a rainbow flag. In her right hand, she is holding her iPhone and is visibly Facebook Live Streaming herself marching in the protest.
Activism meets Facebook live-stream

In the speech that follows, a service worker named Simone speaks about a “racist colonial system” where “a huge majority of the people who have experienced institutionalised abuse [at the hands of the Catholic Church] are Aboriginal people…who are now rotting in jails or whose lives have been destroyed”. Abortion is framed as “an economic issue that affects the whole working class” while the “rise of the far-right” and “right-wing politicians like Fred Nile [and] Pauline Hanson” is lamented.

But the battle over abortion is one that long predates Hanson and the alt-right. Generalised platitudes about the plight of Indigenous Australians do little to establish a universal argument in favour of women’s bodily autonomy. While the Catholic Church is an institution that begs to be scrutinised when it comes to moral posturing, it is not the sole bastion of an anti-abortion stance. Focusing on its past and global transgressions does not make a secular case for choice. And the invocation of class in this context is also an invitation to improve women’s economic situation, compatible with the anti-poverty stance often taken by pro-life activists to complement a pro-life position.

Nonetheless, the crowd remains passionate.

Two protestors walk to parliament house holding hand-painted signs. The protestor on the left is holding a sign saying "Never Again" with a drawing of a coat hanger. The protestor on the right is holding a yellow sign which reads "Family Life Aus: Why do you want our blood on your hands?"
The protestors march to Parliament House ahead of the Catholic congregation

One of the Catholic men commands his group’s attention and shouts over the cacophony of chants in the background. “They need Christ more than we do today,” he says in reference to the protesters. “We do not yell at them, we do not abuse them, we do not antagonise them.”

A member of the Catholic Church's congregation stood in front of the Cathedral chanting "Deus Vult".
A member of the Catholic Church’s congregation stands in front of the Cathedral chanting “Deus Vult”

His voice rises: “We’re the good guys. We’re here to show them that being against abortion is an act of compassion… We don’t do that by making them think we’re some ‘evil agent of the patriarchy’,” he rolls his eyes as he addresses this line to the row of men in front of him.

“But how do we convince them otherwise?” asks the most unsuspecting of the lot, a thug-like man in his early twenties wearing a backward cap and shades, gold chain hanging around his neck.

“By being Christ-like,” his interlocutor responds zealously. “What did Christ say on the cross? He said forgive them father they don’t know what they’re doing. We do not validate their image of a hateful, bigoted church, because Christ was unrelenting in his love.”

“Be Christ,” he spits the two words emphatically, hands trembling as he shakes his umbrella. “Deus vult that, motherfuckers.”

At this point he becomes short of breath and begins to faint. “Men,” another speaks up, shoulders puffed, failing to address the two women in his midst. “We know we’re on the right side… We don’t need to provoke them. If anything, we should be praying for them. And I think together, we should.”

A man, part of the Church's congregation, lies on the Cathedral steps, with police starting to circle around him. A police man hovers over him, taking photographs of him.
Overcome after addressing a group of Church-goers about the importance of preaching love to the protestors, one of the leader’s faints on the Cathedral steps and starts to pray, as police circle.

As their leader collapses to the floor and police approach to investigate the ruckus, they begin in chorus: “Hail Mary full of Grace, our Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb…”

Protestors marching to parliament house, led by three women-identifying individuals. They each carry megaphones in their hands
The crowd remains passionate on their march to Parliament House, escorted by Police

The protesters congregate at parliament, chanting “no back alleys in the night, for safe choices we will fight” while they wait for the Catholic procession.

But the police have taken the Catholic march on another route. Thousands of people walk through the Domain en masse, with a statue of the Virgin Mary, Archbishop Anthony Fisher and Reverend Fred Nile at the helm. This crowd is diverse: it encompasses the young and the elderly; white, anglo churchgoers and those from a multitude of migrant backgrounds. Portable speakers are dispersed  through the crowd, creating a constant stream of prayer and song. Ave Maria rings peacefully through an expansive green landscape, its singers holding posters and praying for unborn children.

“Pray for the women too,” remarks a passerby.

Archbishop Fisher, wearing a white gown and holding a microphone, speaks to the Church's congregation (off camera). Behind him on the right is a tapestry depicting the Blessed Virgin Mother Mary, which says "Our Lady of Guadalupe". Behind him and two the left, members carry a statue of a woman dressed in white robes, with a red and gold crown atop her head.
The Church’s congregation, forced to rally outside the back of Parliament House, listen to Archbishop Fisher’s address

The group congregates at the back steps of parliament, and the speakers turns to the issue of abortion. “We need active pro-lifers,” the priest proclaims. “We need the Catholic fag” – a Freudian slip perhaps – “a Catholic flag, raised in the public domain… These people you can hear in the background want to put bubble zones around abortion clinics of 150 metres.” Cries of “shame” echo around the crowd.

He moves to introduce their speaker, a young lady by the name of Elizabeth. “A young female” — he leans forward on the word, pausing for effect — “pro-life activist.”

Elizabeth is as delicate in dress as she is in decorum: one hand tugs up her trailing floral skirt as she moves past the congregation with a bashful smile. She speaks softly, but pointedly: “The abortion industry talks about choice. But too often women who have an abortion, have abortions because they feel they have no choice. No choice but death for their child.”

The protesters’ chants are growing louder — they have broken through police ranks and run around the side towards the congregation. But it becomes difficult to tell which one is preaching autonomy, which one is chanting for choice. Their rhetoric muddles with Elizabeth’s, who is straining with the microphone.

“Laws against abortion exist to protect women and their babies … abortion has always been a powerful tool for men to oppress women and escape the consequences of their own action. And that means now more than ever we need good men who will stand up for the women in their lives and offer them genuine help and support,” she says.

A man standing next to us is moved by her words. “That’s nice, isn’t it?” he asks. “Standing up for women and babies?”

Police stand in the foreground, forming a blockade in front of the protestors. They wave red flags and the rainbow flag. One protestor at the front is holding up a poster that says "No back alley's in the night, for safe abortions we will fight".
The protestors break ranks and run to the side of Parliament House, where Police form a blockade

The Catholic Church once based their argument solely on the sanctity of life. Now their arguments are couched in the same language as their rivals.

Both sides are aligning themselves against a common enemy: men, broadly; forced decisions, specifically. The protesters condemn partners, government representatives and parish priests who shame women for seeking early termination. The churchgoers bemoan men who force women to abort pregnancies because they don’t want to deal with raising a child.

The Church’s argument is still fraught with tension. It centres on blaming culture — social and economic pressures, and the actions of men — as the reason women are forced into abortions, yet never makes explicit why the rectification of these issues and a woman’s ability to choose should be mutually exclusive.

Elizabeth pauses before her closing statement.

“We need you to treat the women in your lives with the love and dignity they deserve.”

On this point it seems that both sides agree.

At the conclusion of the speeches, thousands of men, women and children break into song. “In history’s page let every stage, Advance Australia Fair.”

In a context where legislative change has repeatedly stalled, and debate on the issue has reached a stalemate, the idea of advancement becomes pertinent.

On the steps of St Mary’s Cathedral, Simone declared there is “a real symbiosis between right-wing bigots like this and right-wing politicians… and all the rest of those scumbags who think that a resurgence of an attack against women’s rights is an ok thing.” But outside the back of NSW Parliament House, the priest propped Elizabeth as the face of the pro-life campaign because “[Pro-choice advocates] like to hear from women, so we will have a young lady address now”.

As long as dialogues about ‘choice’ fail to engage with one another and discourse is characterised by flagrant mischaracterisations, the question of advancement could remain just that: a question.