Kate 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.