The Feministing Five: Kate Marsh

KM3.jpgKate Marsh, 27, is the Public Liaison Officer for Children by Choice, a pro-choice organization in Queensland, Australia. Children by Choice is a small organization that, in addition to advocating for reproductive rights, also offers pregnancy counseling.
In the last few months, Queensland’s abortion laws have been thrust into the spotlight, thanks in large part to the case of Tegan Leach, a 19-year-old Queensland woman who is being charged for self-inducing a medical abortion using drugs bought overseas. Her boyfriend, who helped her procure the drugs, is also being charged.
The case has brought much-needed attention to the fact that despite the relatively common occurrence of abortion in Australia (in 2002, 25.2% of Australian pregnancies ended in abortion, which is comparable to the US’s 24.5% in 2001), there are in fact very few circumstances under which abortion is legal in Australia. And as Marsh notes, the Leach case has led to a decrease in access as doctors around the country, fearing, criminal prosecution, have ceased to provide some forms of abortion.
As an Australian who has always understood the abortion debate in my homeland to be barely-existent, and Australian women’s rights to be secure, the case has been eye-opening and upsetting. However, it was a pleasure to interview Ms. Marsh, who has been an outspoken advocate for legislative change on these issues. You’ll notice that throughout the interview, I’ve had to engage in a small amount of cultural translation in order to make Marsh understood to Feministing’s mostly American audience. Also, you may also notice that I’ve stubbornly used Australian spelling for this interview – just this one – in Ms. Marsh’s honour.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Kate Marsh.


Chloe: What led you to your work in reproductive rights and with Children by Choice?
Kate Marsh: It was completely by accident, in a way. I’ve done a lot of different jobs in my life, and I think life’s too short to be doing something that I don’t like or that doesn’t mean something personally to me. And I just found a job ad online, and did a bit of research on the organization and went, “Oh my god, these guys are amazing,” and went along to the interview and met all these incredible women, and started working here. So in a way, I sort of fell into it, but then again, nobody who knows me was very surprised, because I’ve always been a bit outspoken, and very passionate about politics and issues. So I think a lot of people saw this as a natural place for me to end up.
The reason I was so attracted to Children by Choice in particular is that I see it being a really practical place. We help individual women, as well as campaigning on a really broad level for big change. We do pro-choice pregnancy counseling here, and we also do sexuality education in schools. So it is a really individual approach in a lot of ways, to helping women with their problems now, while also trying to make things better for more women in the future.
CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine?
KM: I have a few. At the risk of sounding like the biggest dork on the planet, my most favourite is Princess Leia from Star Wars. I loved her. I thought she was totally kick-ass and a lot tougher than all the male characters in the movies.
But Tarantino also has a lot of really great heroines in his films. The Rose McGowan character in Planet Terror lost her leg to zombies and had a machine gun put in in its place, which I thought was pretty awesome.
CA: Who are your heroines in real life?
KM: I have lots of those too. My mum is a big one, and my sister. We’ve got a lot of really strong women in our family, and I think that was a really good grounding for me, and a really good lesson for me to learn, that everyday women can be really tough and strong. That’s not necessarily the imagery that you get thrown at you every day. But ever since I’ve been working at Children by Choice I’ve met so many amazing women doing all sorts of stuff, from really prominent individuals to really grassroots activists – like women in their seventies who are still fighting on, and I think that’s totally inspirational.
CA: What recent news event or article made you want to scream?
KM: Obviously, the Tegan Leach case makes me furious. To the best of our knowledge, it’s only the second time a woman has been charged under these particular provisions. The laws themselves are from 1899, and they’ve only been used once before. So there have been a lot of questions raised about why this particular case is being pursued. The police were actually searching the couple’s home on an unrelated issue when they found the blister packets from the drugs that she allegedly took. So there are a lot of questions about why they chose to pursue that when it wasn’t what they were there to investigate. They’ve been committed to trial. The date for the trial hasn’t been set, so they’re faced with another really long wait while they put their lives on hold with everything up in the air. She’s facing a possible 7-year jail sentence, and her partner’s facing 3 years.
After the couple were charged, some of the doctors in Cairns (Cairns is the city Leach is from, and is the major urban hub in the northern part of Queensland, a state larger than Alaska – CA) stopped offering medical abortions. So currently the only option up there is a surgical abortion, which costs around $830 up-front (USD720). You can claim some of that back on Medicare, but it’s only about $270 (USD235), and some women aren’t comfortable in claiming that back afterwards (Medicare is Australia’s universal healthcare safety net, or as it’s called in the States, “socialized medicine.” – CA). A lot of the women who use the services in Cairns come from across north Queensland, because that’s the only place where they can access a termination. So a lot of them are already facing these huge travel and accommodation fees just to come into Cairns to get the procedure done. So some of them are looking at $2000, easily (USD1735).
So after the doctors in Cairns made that decision, I think the debate intensified within the profession, and now we’ve got doctors in public hospitals refusing to provide terminations. The doctors who provide in public hospitals are usually providing second trimester abortions, for maternal health or severe fetal abnormalities. And they’ve stopped offering that. So women looking at terminations later in a pregnancy are now having to travel interstate to access those services. (Australia is the size of the continental US, but we only have seven states, so travelling interstate is a rather large undertaking – CA).

The government did introduce a small reform of one section of the criminal code, which is aimed at reassuring those doctors so that they’ll return to practice. But it hasn’t been enough. The doctors themselves don’t believe it’s enough to protect them or to protect their patients. So currently the only second-trimester abortions being performed in the state are in cases that pose a direct threat to the life of the mother. Any other reasons aren’t enough at this stage. So we’ve got women at 20 weeks and upwards travelling interstate to terminate what is often very much a wanted pregnancy. It’s a pretty disgusting situation.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the biggest challenge facing feminism today?
KM: I think it’s maintaining relevance. I think a lot of people, especially women my age and younger – I’m 27 – think that the battle’s been won. A lot of the messaging, particularly here in Australia, supports that. We’ve got a female Premier in Queensland (a Premier is like a Governor), for all the good that’s done us in regard to the current debate, a female Deputy Prime Minister, a female Governor General*; we’ve got all these women in positions of power. And the messaging is constantly “everything’s great, look at how well women are doing, they can do anything.”
But they don’t necessarily publicise the fact that women will earn an average of 82% of what men earn over their lifetimes, they don’t publicise the fact that it’s technically illegal for you to go and get an abortion in Queensland. There are all these things that people think are okay because they’re not discussed. So I think that’s the real challenge for feminism: keeping the issues alive and keeping the focus on them.

*Oy, I hate explaining this one. The Governor General is the Queen’s appointed representative in Australia. The Queen is technically still our monarch, and the GG is authorized to carry out the wishes of the Queen as they concern Australia. On one memorable occasion, this involved firing the Prime Minister. In 2008, Quentin Bryce, a former Governor of Queensland and former Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, was sworn in as Australia’s first female Governor General.

CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you get to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
KM: Either cheese or some sort of fried potato, red wine, and my best friend. Although she’d probably drink all my wine.

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9 Comments

  1. Vasa
    Posted September 26, 2009 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    “…there are in fact very few circumstances under which abortion is in Australia.”
    Is…what?

  2. Comrade Kevin
    Posted September 26, 2009 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Everyone has a different theory about how we can keep Feminism relevant and make it known that there is still a substantial amount of work to be done. What I see as problematic is that the sexism and misogyny that exist are found in different forms for different generations. Putting out so many fires is almost like the game “wack a mole”. And not only that, there is often an understandable, but still problematic issue that transpires when feminists of different generations often do not see the larger issues in the same terms.
    The key, in my opinion, is to recognize that anti-feminism will always morph into a different form and to resolve to not be beholden to attacking old ways and old grievances that are not longer current.

  3. sophia b
    Posted September 26, 2009 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    Third time signing up, it actually works..
    Anyway, i just wanted to say that the initial situation of nobody talking about abortion at all is so true here in New Zealand too. We have 7 parties in parliment, and only two have stated policies on abortion. And neither of those are the large parties.
    We have old fashioned laws (ok, better than the 1800s but still..) that were designed to limit the number of abortions being performed, and they have stuck with us being interpreted very liberally, but still on the books are horible. There is no right to an abortion, even if one has been raped. Most people get an abortion by claiming it would damage their mental health too much, that they’re not capabale mentally of having children.
    There have been a few legal challenges to this, becuase quite rightly anti abortion groups are claiming the laws are not being upheld as they were intended, and it amounts to abortion on demand. Luckily, so far, nothng has come of this. But the whole thing makes me feel the acess to abortion is a quite fragile thing here.
    In reality how easy it is to get an abortion depends on where you live, with rural places getting the worse deal for having to travel to a main city.
    Though i will say Family Planning which was where i went when i thought i was pregnant is great. I will forvever remember when i went in to get the pregnancy test, and the receptionist told me ‘oh, you look stressed’ in a tone indicating not to worry, it’ll be ok. The test came back negative, so thats the only experience with our services.
    Its not like the situation is dire, just kinda precarious.
    Also the only coverage i’ve seen of this has been at feminist sites, though i haven’t been looking too closely. I hope the media here is covering it.

  4. JamesXL
    Posted September 26, 2009 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    It’s a bad idea to take wacky pills when pregnant, but last time I checked, there were no legal repercussions for doing so. That’s why the surgeon general warnings exist as suggestions towards pregnant women to avoid certain products.
    I guess the same can’t be said for Australia.
    Poor girl, it’s too bad the laws are so draconian down under. Controlling what a pregnant woman can do with her body? It’s like the government owns your body or something once you become pregnant. Scary.

  5. Tess
    Posted September 26, 2009 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    As a seventeen year old Australian feminist, I’ll tell you that not all of us young people believe that the fight is over.
    I remember being told by friends about a incident in the society and culture class. When discussing race one boy started to make very racist/sexist/homophobic remarks. In response to this the entire class tried to convince him that he was wrong and got very angry with him. Apparently this is a common occurrence in this class where he is often yelled at by other frustrated students for his prejudice. So while heavy bigotry lives in this generation too, their are many teenagers, female and male, that are willing to stand up against it.

  6. bifemmefatale
    Posted September 27, 2009 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Dude, Leach wasn’t “taking wacky drugs”. She ordered abortion pills to self-induce an abortion. She wasn’t doing Ecstasy. It has nothing to do with Surgeon General’s warnings at all.

  7. JamesXL
    Posted September 27, 2009 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    It doesn’t matter what the pills were intended for.
    I was making a point that in the US, pregnant women receive SUGGESTIONS to stay away from products that could kill their unborn baby, but there are no laws that prohibit it. I don’t recall ever seeing pregnant mothers being arrested for smoking or drinking heavily with the charge of attempting to induce an abortion.
    When you boil it all down, it doesn’t matter that the pills she took were specifically for abortion. She basically consumed a product that was deadly to the baby, and was arrested for it. It’s a matter of controlling pregnant mothers and what they can put in their bodies.

  8. Jessica R
    Posted September 28, 2009 at 2:22 am | Permalink

    This is totally OT but I am intrigued by the “cultural translation” – as an Aussie I can’t imagine what could need translating. Was our slang a bit much? :D

  9. Zoe Brain
    Posted September 29, 2009 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

    Just some of the things we take for granted, that in the USA would seem strange:
    That we’ve had the equivalent of ENDA for over a decade. That GLBTS can serve in the armed forces.
    That 1/3 of the country is Catholic – but less than 10% of Australians go to church regularly.
    That we have a federal social security safety-net that means that if anyone starves or freezes to death, it’s a national scandal. And no term limits on unemployment benefits, as long as work is genuinely sought.
    That anyone earning even an average wage pays 30% in tax.
    That working as a “flagman” directing traffic around road works pays three times the average wage, twice what a senior academic earns, but that there’s still a big demand for such people because it’s boring, dangerous and uncomfortable – especially in summer – with an increased risk of skin cancer.
    That the Labor Party (Left sorta) is more socially conservative in many ways due to the heavy Irish Catholic Socialist element than the Liberal Party (conservatives – but very socially liberal by US standards). Both major parties would be considered far closer to different wings of the US Democrats than the GOP.
    That while we’re the physical size of the continental USA (almost exactly – within 3%), we have the population of Texas. Which to us seems insanely crowded.
    That a third of the population lives in two cities nearly a thousand miles apart from each other.
    Then of course there’s the language. “We’re rooting for you” has very different meanings, as does the phrase “can you pass me a rubber?”.
    I used that last one in a very important multinational technical conference in Akron Ohio once, discussing classified work – all diagrams had to be done in pencil on butcher’s paper, to be burnt afterwards. So as one side’s technical Guru I needed an eraser…
    I should also mention that Queensland is to Australia what Alabama is to the USA. They’re a bit conservative there. The “Deep North” as we call it. It’s about the size of the old Civil War Confederacy, and attitudes have been traditionally similar.

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