Riot police and officers on horseback clashed with a group of feminists, students and activists during a counter-protest of the annual pro-life ‘Day of the Unborn Child’ rally on Sunday.
The snap action in Sydney was organised by SRC Wom*n’s’ Officers, Jessica Syed and Maddy Ward, on behalf of Wom*n’s Collective.
Shortly after the event began, police forcefully moved protesters away from the starting location in order to ensure greater distance from the pro-life congregation attending the service inside. The police presence included the riot squad, mounted police on horseback and squad cars. Most of the demonstrators were young women.
“We see the rhetoric of the Catholic Church and its shoot-off groups as violent: towards women, towards people who access abortions, towards what is purportedly a secular state,” said Syed.
“Their beliefs inadvertently encourage people to pursue dangerous avenues of termination—your classic coat-hanger in the backyard scenario.”
Whilst moving the protesters on, one woman was torn from the crowd and placed under arrest after lightly resisting aggressive riot police, who touched her breasts roughly during the scuffle.
Although police were originally insistent on processing her at the station, after the woman and supporters affirmed indecent assault was witnessed, the officers were forced to give her a move on order and promised to lay charges at a later date.
“Relative to the minimal harm the arrested persons posed, this was an extreme response,” said Syed.
Today, police were forced to drop charges upon reviewing the footage, which showed the young woman was falling over right before being arrested.
The organisers submitted all relevant notice of intent to protest two weeks prior, maintained constant communication with the forces and negotiated an agreement to assemble in an area adjacent to the Cathedral. Despite this, heavy policing marred the entirety of the action under the misguided belief that the counter-protest was an unlawful assembly.
“Riot police aggressively moved us away from this area which they had previously allowed us to stand in,” said Syed.
The ‘International Day of the Unborn Child’ was established by Pope John Paul II after El Salvador first celebrated the event in 1993. He argued the event would be “a positive option in favour of life and the spread of a culture for life to guarantee respect for human dignity in every situation”.
The protesters continued to demonstrate despite the police presence. A variety of speakers addressed the crowd, including abortion rights activist Jessika Faithful, who spoke about her advocacy work for planned parenthood in Alabama and in Honduras. A statement from NSW Greens MP Mehreen Faruqi, whose attempts to decriminalise abortion in NSW in 2017 were defeated, was also read aloud.
Mid-way through these speeches, the service at St Mary’s ended and the congregation poured out. This created a highly unusual scene, with protesters beginning to address the Catholics, who were joined by Christian minister and NSW politician Fred Nile, Archbishop Anthony Fisher as well as alt-right Holocaust denier and University of Sydney student Sukith Fernando.
Socialist Alternative member Eleanor Morley delivered a takedown to pro-life onlookers, labelling them hypocrites in light of the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
“Last year, the findings of the Royal Commission were released and one of the most horrifying things found was the systematic and widespread abuse and rape of children throughout the Catholic Church. Catholic ministers who were known pedophiles are known to have raped young boys and young girls and then driven many of them to suicide What did the head office of this institution do? Did it remove them from from a position where they had care and control of children? No, they did not” she said.
Unlike the pro-lifers, police did not allow the counter-protesters to march. As they dispersed, police and activists continued heated exchanges, with police remarking many women would look more attractive with long hair.
One women responded by asking riot police if they were friends with the officers revealed to be pedophiles, rapists and murderers in the Royal Commission into the New South Wales police service.
In Australia, abortion remains criminalised in NSW and Queensland. Western Australia only has two providers in the entire state whilst Tasmania now only offers the procedure in a private facility at the cost of $2500.
In response, the USyd Wom*n’s Collective have declared their intent to focus on pro-choice activism for the entirety of 2018. Syed explained to Honi that they had already been responding to the lack of exclusion zones in NSW that outlaw harassment of women as they enter facilities to undergo the procedure.
“Myself, and predominantly, my co-officer Madeline have set up an informal service within our collective with an abortion clinic in the CBD. Volunteers of our collective will usher patients into the clinic, past a sleuth of pro-life Catholic protesters who stand outside the entrance, she said.
“We will be continuing this service until a Safe Access Zones bill is passed in NSW parliament, preventing [pro-life] protesters from assembling within 150 metres of any abortion clinic. We will also generally continue our pro-choice activism in whatever form it is necessary to fight for free, legal, and safe abortion,” she concluded.
Recent efforts to decriminalise abortion have stalled. Syed criticised the political context that had prevented progress in Australia when compared to movements in Ireland or Bangladesh.
“Why legalisation has not yet occurred here may hint at the influence of the church in legislative matters—bodies such as the Australian Christian Lobby, for example, who rub shoulders with a myriad of conservative politicians… [and] preclude this healthcare service from being available.”
Syed had some final words for NSW’s most dedicated pro-life parliamentarian:
“To Fred Nile: we wish your mum aborted you.”