Workers Vanguard No. 1120
20 October 2017
For Free Abortion on Demand!
Quality Health Care for All!
(Women and Revolution pages)
The following article is reprinted from Australasian Spartacist No. 232 (Spring 2017), newspaper of the Spartacist League of Australia.
On 11 May the New South Wales (NSW) parliament voted down a bill put forward by Greens MP [Member of Parliament] Mehreen Faruqi to remove abortion from the NSW Crimes Act. In NSW, as in Queensland, abortion offences are still part of the criminal code written over a century ago. Relying on case law, terminations are only “lawful” where a doctor believes that the woman’s mental or physical health will be at risk if the pregnancy continues. Across Australia, the patchwork of laws and regulations restricting access to abortion, combined with the financial cost and lack of medical services, particularly in country areas, act as a severe deterrent to women seeking to terminate a pregnancy.
The demand for abortion rights is the demand for the basic democratic right to a simple medical or surgical procedure, among the safest in the world. It is an outrage that the capitalist state and bourgeois parliamentarians should have the power to interfere in a woman’s most intimate, private decisions. We communists fight for free abortion and contraception on demand, without qualification, linked to a program of quality health care for all, free of charge at the point of delivery. These are vital necessities for women and for working people as a whole, along with paid maternity and paternity leave and free 24-hour childcare.
The anti-abortion vote in NSW has occurred at a time of increased attacks on union rights and welfare, which hit poor and minority women hardest. Slashing penalty [shift or holiday differential] rates in the retail, hospitality and pharmacy sectors—industries which largely employ women and include some of the lowest-paying jobs—means that hundreds of thousands of people will lose up to $6,000 in annual income. Cuts to [Department of Human Services] Centrelink payments and the rising cost of childcare place an extraordinary burden especially on sole parents, the vast majority of whom are women.
For Class Struggle, Not Reliance on the Capitalist State
Faruqi’s failed bill included a proposal to implement buffer zones, also known as “safe access zones,” around abortion clinics in NSW. Labor MP Penny Sharpe has drafted another bill for “safe zones” which is expected to be voted later this year. Such laws exist in four other states and territories, including Victoria, and essentially make it an offence to protest within 150 metres of a clinic. Buffer zones have been championed by many feminists, and by the deeply reformist Socialist Alliance, as a response to the reactionary anti-abortion scum and religious nut jobs who terrorise patients and medical staff outside abortion clinics.
We have always opposed such laws because they substitute reliance on the capitalist state for militant clinic defence. Indeed, “buffer-zone” laws have been used in the U.S. to arrest clinic defenders along with anti-abortion bigots. Such laws can provide a precedent to ban picket lines and quash political protests by leftists, workers and minorities. The cops and military, along with the courts and prisons, form the core of the capitalist state, a repressive institution that exists to maintain the exploitative class rule of the capitalists against the struggles of the workers and the oppressed. It is the bosses’ cops who break up striking workers’ pickets and terrorise Aboriginal, Muslim and other minority communities.
As revolutionary Marxists, we look to the working class as the motor force for progress. The interests of workers, who are forced to sell their labour power to survive, and the capitalists, who grow fat profiting from the wealth produced by the workers, are irreconcilably counterposed. With their role in production, proletarian men and women have the potential to bring to bear enormous social power against capitalist attacks by withdrawing their labour. The fight to defend and extend women’s rights, including the right to abortion, must be waged through the independent mass mobilisation of the oppressed backed by the social power of labour. The power of the unions should be mobilised in support of women and their allies to defend the clinics! This is the road to decisively routing the religious cranks and their potentially murderous and fascistic hangers-on.
Feminism and the Labor Party
Feminism regards the main division in society as between the sexes not between the capitalist class and the working class. It is a bourgeois ideology that seeks to change the position of women by changing social relations within the existing capitalist system. Feminists view women’s oppression as a set of bad ideas and policies that can be reformed through a variety of pressure tactics. Thus they promote gender parity in parliament as the means to achieving decriminalisation of abortion in NSW and Queensland and to more broadly address the inequality of women. For example, the Laborite feminist network Emily’s List was created with the explicit purpose of advancing women up the bourgeois parliamentary ladder. This logic encourages women to support female social-democratic and outright capitalist politicians, who—when in power—administer the anti-worker, sexist, violent capitalist state on behalf of the bosses.
While reforms can be won under capitalism, we Marxists understand they are necessarily partial and can be easily reversed. They are under threat so long as bourgeois rule remains. In sharp opposition to feminism, we maintain that to liberate the exploited and oppressed you have to change the foundations of society by abolishing private ownership of the means of production, expropriating the banks and collectivising industry in the interests of all. This requires sweeping away the whole rotting capitalist system through workers revolution.
Many feminists have secured careers in the Labor Party (ALP) where they have helped to oversee attacks on the working class, including on working women. Former Queensland Labor premier, Anna Bligh, is the embodiment of feminist ideology drawn to its logical conclusion. A former campaigner for abortion rights and a “pro-choice” feminist, Bligh played her part in blocking abortion decriminalisation bills in Queensland. The Labor Party, which continues to allow its MPs a “conscience vote” on abortion as on same-sex marriage, continually panders to the Catholic right wing of the party and pledges its commitment to the Christian lobby. In 2009 Bligh oversaw the state witchhunt of a young Cairns couple over the use of the medical abortion drugs Misoprostol and Mifepristone to end the woman’s pregnancy—they were finally acquitted after a harrowing 18-month ordeal (see ASp No. 206, Spring 2009). Bligh is now the first female CEO of the Australian Bankers’ Association and spends her time lobbying for the “rights” of the profit-gouging banks. A dazzling career indeed.
While the Greens are a capitalist party, the ALP is what Marxists call a bourgeois workers party. While based on the trade unions, it has a thoroughly pro-capitalist program and leadership. When in government, the Labor Party maintains capitalist order to ensure the continued exploitation of the working class. They work closely with the bureaucratic misleaders of the trade unions, who promote class collaboration, nationalist protectionist poison, and reliance on the state to stifle workers’ impulses for struggle against the bosses’ ongoing attacks.
A case in point is Sally McManus, the first female secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). McManus garnered popular support among militant workers when she defended workers’ right to so-called illegal industrial action, sparking a witchhunt in the bourgeois media. She also condemned cuts to penalty rates, making this a major campaign issue in her first months as secretary. However, rather than rallying the social power of the ACTU’s 38 affiliated unions to defend penalty rates through broad-based industrial action, McManus has pushed the dead-end strategy of trying to effect legislative change through swaying public opinion and pressuring parliament.
Many of those most affected by penalty rate cuts are not unionised. It is necessary to fight to organise the unorganised and mobilise the unions to stand in defence of all the oppressed. Such a course will take a struggle within the unions to replace the pro-capitalist union tops with a class-struggle leadership that is determined to take up the fight for workers and minorities and does not bow before the bosses’ state.
A Class Question
You don’t have to be a Marxist, or even a partisan of the proletariat, to defend women’s right to abortion. Many people support its decriminalisation. But access to abortion is a class question. Our call for free abortion on demand, as part of free, quality health care for all, and for free 24-hour childcare, addresses the deep class and race oppression of poor and minority women. In capitalist society, women with money and resources at their disposal will always be able to find safe abortions when needed. It is working women, the poorest and most oppressed who lack the means and access to this basic right, as well as to decent health care and education around reproductive health. This is exemplified by the desperate plight of deeply oppressed and impoverished Aboriginal women living in remote outback communities.
Medical abortion drugs such as RU486 are highly regulated as to when and how they can be accessed, often leading to costs similar to surgical abortions. Particularly on the east coast of the country, the majority of surgical abortions are performed in private clinics which often means paying hundreds of dollars. Terminations later in pregnancy are both more expensive and more tightly regulated. Across the country, the greatest restrictions apply to late-term abortions. Such restrictions are a legal wedge used to curtail abortion access, intimidate and prosecute abortion doctors and embolden the anti-abortion zealots.
Cases of Misogynist Cruelty
In NSW, case law permitting abortions on the grounds that the woman’s mental or physical health is endangered has created the illusion of legality for some. This misconception was shattered earlier this year when a 28-year-old woman was convicted under Section 82 of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW), which makes it an offence for a woman to unlawfully procure her own abortion and carries a maximum penalty of ten years in prison. The woman obtained Misoprostol over the internet after being refused an abortion at clinics because her pregnancy was past 20 weeks. After taking the tablets, she became unwell and went to hospital where she gave birth via emergency caesarean. She received a three-year bond and is reportedly the first woman to be prosecuted under this section of the Crimes Act.
Another grotesque expression of capitalist cruelty is the case of a Somali refugee woman known as Abyan. In 2015 Abyan was raped on Nauru, the site of one of Australia’s hellish offshore refugee detention centres. Pregnant and interned on an island where abortion is illegal, she asked to be sent to Australia for a termination. After weeks of bureaucratic delays, her plea was accepted. By this time her mental and physical health were dire. She was found unconscious in bed and had to spend two days in the Nauruan hospital before she could be taken to Sydney’s notoriously brutal Villawood detention centre. Five days later, the immigration minister, Peter Dutton, falsely declared that she had decided not to go ahead with the abortion and transported her back to Nauru without her ever having seen a doctor. During this same period, Dutton also ruled out transferring several pregnant asylum seekers to Australia for medical treatment, including one heavily pregnant woman with serious health issues, grotesquely claiming there was a “racket” going on to “blackmail” the government to gain entry to the country.
There are multiple cases of pregnant women with potentially fatal diseases being denied life-saving treatment due to concerns about the effects on the foetus, and simultaneously being refused an abortion. An Iraqi refugee living in Queensland discovered she was pregnant shortly after being diagnosed with breast cancer. The public hospital where she sought treatment would not start chemotherapy while she was pregnant but also refused to perform an abortion! She instead had to seek a termination at a private clinic, which she could not afford. It was only due to the actions of two sympathetic doctors that she was able to get a medical abortion at minimal cost, and could then undergo proper cancer treatment. These instances of cruelty provide a glimpse of the brutality women face in this racist, sexist capitalist society.
As Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s closest collaborator, explained in his famous pamphlet, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), the historic roots of women’s oppression lie in the development of private property. The primitive social equality of early hunter-gatherer society was overthrown when inventions such as agriculture created a social surplus that allowed, for the first time, the development of a leisured ruling class that lived off the labour of others. The family, specifically the monogamy of women, was needed to ensure the orderly transmission of property and power to the patriarch’s heirs, the next generation of the ruling class.
The family under capitalism also serves as the means of rearing the next generation of proletarian wage slaves and cannon fodder for future military conflicts. From infancy, the institution of the family socialises people to behave according to certain norms, respect authority and develop the habits of obedience and deference so useful for capitalist exploitation and profit-making. It serves as an ideological transmission belt for the “values” of the capitalist rulers and instils social conservatism. Along with organised religion and the state apparatus, the institution of the family is a fundamental prop for the capitalist system of oppression and exploitation.
For New October Revolutions!
What is needed is a revolutionary party that struggles against the treachery of class collaboration promoted by “left” feminists, the Laborite reformist left and sell-out union leadership. We need a party that stands as a tribune of the people. Such a party would take up the fight for all the oppressed and emblazon on its banner the fight for women’s liberation. It is through such struggles that the proletariat will be won to the understanding and consciousness that it alone has the social power, and historic interest, to sweep away capitalism and establish a government based on a collectivised economy that produces for human need, rather than for the profit of a tiny minority.
Our model is the Russian Revolution of 1917. Led by the Bolshevik Party, it drew millions of women to its liberating cause. It gave flesh and blood to the Marxist program of workers rule. It freed women from the brutal peasant patriarchy of religious backwardness and gave them full legal equality. Divorce was made legal and all laws against consensual sexual activity were removed. In 1920, the Soviet Union was the first country in the world to grant women legal, free abortion. Inheriting economic backwardness, the isolated and war-ravaged workers state did all it could to build the communal dining halls, laundries, childcare and other programs necessary to free women from the family confines. Marxists recognise that the family cannot simply be abolished; its social functions, especially the rearing of the next generation, must be replaced by socialised domestic services and collectivised care and responsibility for children.
The Bolsheviks understood that without qualitative economic development, a fully socialist society and the liberation of women could not be achieved. They founded the Communist International and viewed the Russian Revolution as the first step towards socialist revolution across the globe. They particularly looked to revolutions in advanced capitalist countries like Germany. The material basis for the realisation of the Marxist program is the overcoming of economic scarcity through a massive increase in the productivity of labour. This will take several generations of socialist development based on a world-wide collectivised economy to come into full being (for more on this, see “Communism and the Family,” WV Nos. 1068 and 1069, 15 and 29 May 2015).
The official resurrection and glorification of the family and retreat from Bolshevik policies on divorce and abortion were key manifestations of the subsequent degeneration of the Russian Revolution. A nationalist bureaucratic caste headed by Stalin usurped political power from the Soviet working class beginning with a political counterrevolution in 1923-24. This political counterrevolution was fought by Trotsky and the Left Opposition. Despite the degeneration, the central gains of the Russian Revolution— embodied in the overthrow of capitalist property relations and the establishment of a planned economy—remained. These gains were apparent, for example, in the material position of women. Prior to capitalist counterrevolution in 1991-92, Soviet women enjoyed rights unknown to those in neighbouring capitalist countries. They had access to state-supported affordable childcare institutions, full abortion rights (restored in 1955), access to a wide range of trades and professions, and a large degree of economic equality with their male co-workers.
Trotskyists defended the gains embodied in the workers states of the USSR and Eastern Europe while opposing the parasitic bureaucracy. Today we defend the deformed workers states of China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cuba, not least because of the immense strides for women that have been made there. We strive to build a multiracial workers party of the type built by the Bolshevik leaders Lenin and Trotsky who led the October Revolution to victory 100 years ago. A proletarian, internationalist, revolutionary vanguard party would seek to lead the working class, on the streets and in the factories, to champion the rights of all the oppressed as part of the struggle to overthrow this racist, sexist and exploitative system through workers revolution. For women’s liberation through socialist revolution!