“This is an elite court of law in the US that has made a decision that affects tens of millions of people – makes their lives worse – with the stroke of a pen,” said Unite Against the Right spokesperson Hersha Kadkol before an abortion rights rally at Sydney Town Hall last Saturday.
Over 5,000 people gathered in solidarity with women in the United States who have had their right to abortion overturned. This right had been established at the federal level in the 1973 US Supreme Court case Roe versus Wade, which the conservative majority of the court reversed on 24 June.
“This is a hard right attack coming from a minority that’s very organised and wants to drag us down and rob us of control of our own bodies,” Kadkol told the crowd standing in torrential rain on 2 June. “But abortion is healthcare. Healthcare is a right.”
The social justice activist further underscored that despite this unprecedented move to revoke an established right, which has direct implications for half the population in the United States, this attack on women’s rights has ramifications globally.
Indeed, whilst there has been no recent vocal assault on abortion rights locally, the same forces that aimed to overturn Roe versus Wade in the US, the Christian Right, are active in this country and have been campaigning, via the religious freedoms debate, to wind back the clock on a range of issues.
“Get your rosaries off our ovaries”
“If the patriarchy does not understand how prochoice we are, then I think we have shown them today,” NSW Greens MP Jenny Leong told the rally. “If the men in power think that we’re going to roll over while they try to undermine our rights to reproductive health care, they can get fucked.”
“This is the right time to send two very clear messages. The first is to the Supreme Court of the United States o Lia Perkins f America and to all of the so-called right-to-lifers that are trying to control our bodies,” she continued, standing atop Sydney Town Hall steps. “To them we say, fuck you.”
Six conservative justices appointed by former Republican US presidents Trump and both senior and junior Bush voted against the three others on the bench in favour of overturning Roe versus Wade – a long-time conservative aim – during a case that involved abortion laws in Mississippi.
In writing the majority ruling, Justice Samuel Alito found there are no inherent rights to privacy or personal autonomy in the US Constitution. And in concurring, Justice Clarence Thomas suggested the court reconsider the rights to gay marriage, homosexual acts and access to contraception.
“The second message we send is this, in… NSW, only a very short time ago did we even decriminalise abortion,” Leong added, “let’s take a moment to shout out to the incredible feminists that have led this charge… and welcome and be inclusive to all of the trans and gender diverse people among us.”
A coalition of NSW MPs saw the successful decriminalisation of abortion in September 2019, overturning a 119-year-old law, via a bill brought by independent MP Alex Greenwich. This was the culmination of a campaign first sparked by now Greens Senator Dr Mehreen Faruqi in 2016.
“Every person who needs one should have the right to a free, safe and accessible abortion,” said USYD SRC education officer Lia Perkins. “There is no exception. It should not matter where you live, your socioeconomic status, disability, race or religion.”
“It is not your choice to deny women a necessary healthcare procedure that saves lives,” she further told the Defend Abortion Rights rally. “We are here today because of the attacks on reproductive rights from the conservative courts in the United States, which is an attack on all people.”
Perkins outlined that those with a similar agenda as the US religious right marched through the Sydney CBD streets in March, as they marked the Day of the Unborn Child, which involved pro-lifers “trying to wield political influence” in favour of overturning abortion rights.
The university student raised the local demand involving the right to “free, safe and accessible abortions”, which should be extended to all women living in Australia. She stressed that the ability to undergo this necessary and regular procedure should not depend on an individual’s bank balance.
A shift to the right
While much of the focus has been on more children being born into dire circumstances in the US, University of California Law Professor Michele Goodwin has raised the point that current high rates of maternal mortality and morbidity due to lack of access to healthcare are set to escalate.
“The Supreme Court’s own records show that women are 14 times more likely to die by carrying a pregnancy to term than having an abortion,” Goodwin told Democracy Now on 27 June. “Once we flash what this looks like in terms of race, then we really get a sense of the horror behind all of this.”
In Mississippi, the professor said, Black women are 118 times more likely to die carrying a pregnancy to term, they make up 80 percent of cardiac arrests during pregnancy in that state, while nationally, they’re three and a half times more likely to die due to maternal mortality than their counterparts.
American Civil Liberties Union national legal director David Cole told the same US news program two days later that there are now five justices on the US Supreme Court bench who are originalists, meaning they believe the US Constitution should only uphold the rights it did when enacted.
The current term has also seen the US Supreme Court rule on more public money allocation to religious schools, increased state power over Native Nations, overturned a law banning guns in public in New York, and limited environmental protections on emissions from existing power plants.
“A conservative spring”
NSW premier Dominic Perrottet made clear which side of this political divide he sits on when he suggested the coming of US president Donald Trump may herald in a “conservative spring”, while he’s also outlined that he doesn’t support abortion, gay marriage and he questions climate change.
Former PM Scott Morrison spent much of his time in office pushing for religious freedom laws that would have heightened the rights of the religious to discriminate against others based on race, sex, sexuality, gender identity, disability and pregnancy status in accordance with their faith doctrine.
And new Labor federal attorney general Mark Dreyfus has flagged revisiting the controversial Religious Discrimination Bill, which, in previous drafts, has sought to bolster religious liberties.
“There is a hard right here in Australia celebrating the same thing we’re observing with horror,” said Community Action for Rainbow Rights co-convenor April Holcombe. “The Religious Discrimination Bill was happily shelved in the last term, but now the Labor party has promised to bring it back.”
“This bill is nothing but an attempt by the religious right to get a foot back in the door after we smashed down the past with things like marriage equality,” she warned the huge crowd gathered, despite the rain, in support of abortion rights.