Abortion and Choice in the Neoliberal Aftermath by Kate Gleeson

Choice is a key concept in feminist theory that has been coopted by neoliberalism. [1] ‘A woman’s right to choose’ was one of the most effective slogans of second wave feminism, but since the 1990s, choice has been deployed to undermine feminist gains by way of the neoliberal advance of individualism and anti-welfarism. Recently, the relationships between post feminism and neoliberalism, which together promote the ideal of choice for young women in the arenas of work and consumerism, have come to be scrutinised. Most notable in this field is the work of Angela McRobbie and her study of The Aftermath of Feminism (2010), to which the title of my article owes its inspiration. McRobbie identifies one of the hallmarks of post feminism as the “new sexual contract”, which promotes a degree of sexual freedom for young women so long as they fulfil the roles of economic citizenship by working and consuming (2010, 85). In this context ‘choice’ is deployed as a lure for young women to subscribe to the anti feminist conditions of neoliberalism, so that they will decline to organise politically as feminists to disrupt liberal democratic regimes and economies. The choice to be ‘responsibly’ sexual in particular, is valorised by both young women and the dominant discourses of neoliberalism and post feminism.

In this article I examine the deployment of post feminist discourse in a conservative political environment, in which the idealisation of sexual freedoms is not self evident, and is likely to run counter to conservative ideology. I want to examine the ways in which conservative politicians in Australia have coopted the feminist ideal of choice to inform anti-abortion arguments which rely perversely, on the myth of a now redundant feminism, as articulated by post feminism. Australia is an informative example to study because in the 1970s feminists had relative success in arguing for abortion as choice, to the extent of securing sustained public subsidies for abortion services. The legal protection of abortion has been more or less secured since that time, but increasingly the ideal of abortion as choice has been publicly debated, both by feminists and conservative politicians informed apparently by the  discourses of post feminism. In this context, I examine conservative Australian ‘post feminist’ treatments of abortion and choice to show the  ways in which canny conservatives may manoeuvre their arguments within post feminist discourse, and yet still maintain a condemnation of abortion, which seems to be at odds with the ethos of the new sexual contract. This is revealing not only for studies of feminism and abortion, but also for the study of contemporary conservatism and the limits of its capacity to engage with neoliberalism. Abortion, I argue, proves to be a potent limit of social neoliberalism for a certain stream of conservatism, such as that followed by Prime Minister of  Australia, Tony Abbott, who despite his neoliberal economic outlook, spearheaded a public anti abortion debate from 2004 to 2006.

This article is structured as follows. First I briefly outline the history of choice as it was used to argue for abortion rights in the USA, and show the influence of this approach on the Australian women’s movement of the 1970s, and ensuing abortion policies. Second I describe the rise of neoliberalism and the valorisation of choice in this context, most notably performed by the conservative side of politics in Australia from the 1990s. Third I focus on the work of McRobbie to explain the rise of post feminism at this time, and the ways in which its discourses helped to exalt choice in a neoliberal sense, while simultaneously undermining arguments for abortion as choice. Fourth, I explain how conservative Australian politicians have used the discourses of post feminism to condemn abortion, and fifth I point to the limitations of neoliberalism for such conservatives, that their condemnation of abortion reveals. I conclude by noting the post feminist authority that conservatives may invoke to support modern anti abortion arguments, which is a result of the undermining of choice in feminist contexts.

1. A Short History of Choice in the USA and Australia

During the early 1960s in the U.S.A. a number of radical women agitated for the repeal of abortion laws (Phelan & Maginnis 1969), but it was after the National Organisation for Women endorsed repeal campaigns in 1967 that the mass mobilisation of the feminist movement transformed an abortion reform movement led by doctors into an abortion rights movement led by women (Mc Bride 2008, 14).  The 1965 Supreme Court decision in Griswold v Connecticut (381 U.S. 479 (1965)) that State laws prohibiting contraceptive use by married people violated privacy rights, led some liberal activists to argue that abortion was also protected by constitutional privacy provisions. In contrast, from 1969 the New York Redstockings, who were influenced profoundly by Simone de Beaviour’s materialist analysis of abortion in The Second Sex, led ‘speak-outs’ on abortion and demanded repeal of the law based on feminist claims derived from de Beauvoir, Black Liberation and Maoist praxis. Despite their opposition to law reform and medically subscribed abortion, the Redstockings claimed the reforms of the New York State legislature in 1970, which allowed for terminations performed by doctors until the twenty-fourth week of a pregnancy, as “the first concrete breakthrough of the women’s liberation movement” (Sarachild 1976, 19). The politically diverse women’s movement adopted the claim for reproductive rights as the “primary political strategy” of second wave feminism (O’Brien Hallstein 2008, 147), however the “institutional and ideological power of American liberalism” marginalised radical feminists while “channelling the aspirations they aroused into demands for reform on the one hand”, and a “cult of the individual ‘liberated women’ on the other”(Willis 1984, 92).

A civil liberties outlook came to characterise mainstream American abortion campaigns, such as those articulated by the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL).The 1970 New York reforms set the parameters for the 1973 decision in Roe v Wade (410 U.S. 113 (1973)), when the Supreme Court found that personal privacy is a “fundamental right”, and that a “woman’s decision” whether or not to terminate a pregnancy is “one of those zones of privacy where the government cannot interfere” (McBride 2008, 17) and hence, a doctor may abort a  pregnancy for any reason, up until the point at which the foetus becomes viable. The 1973 decision, with its emphasis on a woman’s decision-making solidified in the popular mind, choice as one of the most successful and “ubiquitous” discourses of feminism, a success frequently attributed to its “thoroughgoing liberalness”(Ruhl 2002, 37). Following this, organisations like NARAL and Planned Parenthood increasingly characterised abortion as “a personal choice” (Harvey in Baehr 1990, 47) to support reform over repeal, thereby sidelining the most radical and materialist claims of the women’s movement, that abortion was a political claim essential for all women’s autonomy and full human rights. Hence it was after women achieved abortion rights in 1973 that “the rhetoric of rights developed into the rhetoric of choice” (O”Brien Hallstein 2008, 149).

From the early 1970s, Australian feminists followed in the U.S. pro-choice tradition, and promoted abortion as a “single issue” of women’s choice, to target state and territory abortion laws for repeal (Kevin 2005, 6).  While Australian abortion activists were also influenced by The Second Sex, their claims for abortion centred on libertarian free choice, as they incorporated the views of existing humanist and civil libertarian abortion reform lobbies, and hoped to appeal to women who were not yet politicised around feminist issues (Kevin 2005, 6). In 1972 the Women’s Electoral Lobby, in the tradition of American liberals, lobbied politicians on abortion and welcomed the election of the leader of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) Gough Whitlam. Despite his party’s lack of policy on abortion, Whitlam identified himself as supporting abortion on request. After members of his government tried and failed to reform abortion law in the parliament of the Australian Capital Territory in 1973, Whitlam pursued reform in the safety of the policy arena. He formed a Royal Commission into Human Relationships which examined abortion; he quietly included surgical abortion procedures in the new Medibank public health rebates in 1974 and his government funded feminist health services that provided subsidised abortions (Coleman 1991).

In 1984 the A.L.P. platform on women was amended to include “the particular right of women to choice of fertility control”, to which was added “including abortion”, but this was not binding on members (Pringle 2007). Since 1994, the feminist lobby Emily’s List has promoted pro-choice female candidates in the party. The A.L.P. maintains a policy of a free (conscience) vote on this issue, as does the leading conservative party, the Liberal Party of Australia. The feminist discourses of women’s choice, as dictated by activists and lobbyists, successfully infiltrated the A.L.P.’s rhetoric, if not its binding policies (while the Liberals do not have a platform on abortion at all). There has been no successful parliamentary challenge to abortion funding in Australia, whereas in the USA, for example, the Hyde Amendments eroded federal funds for the procedure. Liberalising abortion reforms unfolded across Australian states and territories from 1968-2010, sponsored mostly by A.L.P. backbenchers. While activist reform campaigns have maintained a decisively pro-choice (feminist) focus throughout this period, the language of the ensuing laws has not, with all Australian legal developments having moved to consolidate the control of the medical profession over the procedure.

2. Neoliberalism and Choice in Australia

Australian abortion reforms, from the late 1960s to 2010, coincided both with the emergence and subsequent decline of a comprehensive women’s movement, and with the emergence and sustained supremacy of neoliberalism. While the feminist ideal of choice had some influence in shaping abortion policy, including the public funding of abortion services, its ongoing influence in this arena is not explicitly apparent, and since the 1970s ‘choice’ itself has been co-opted and deployed along masculinist neoliberal lines. The ascendancy of neoliberalism began in response to a “great convulsion in world capitalism” (Gamble 2006, 21) in the 1970s when unemployment, inflation and corporate failures were “engulfing the advanced western industrial economies” (Robison 2006, 3). At this time, free market “champions” like Reagan and Thatcher were “able to seize power because policies of deregulation, privatisation, low taxes and appeals to individual  self- reliance proposed a way out of the downward spiral of welfare capitalism and protected industrialism” (Robison 2006, 4). Neoliberalism, it was argued, would correct the flaws of laissez-fare capitalism by providing a state-based framework for the operations of the free market (Aly 2010, 38). Accompanying and substantiating these economic policies was an ideology of “social neoliberalism” that redefined citizenship in terms of “the right to participate in the market” and equality as “access to the market rather than redistribution of income” (Robison 2006, 5).

By the end of the 1980s neoliberalism as both a political economy and an ideology had sidelined both Keynesianism and socialism to become the “new dominant common sense, the paradigm shaping all policies” (Gamble 2006, 23-24) across western liberal nations. In Australia, the “neoliberal revolution was gathering momentum” when the A.L.P. again won government in 1983. By the time it was deposed in 1996, the “inexorable sea change” in the Australian political landscape was completed. The A.L.P. had “absorbed the agenda of the new right” (McKnight 2005, 60-61), thereby pre-empting the third way initiatives of Blair’s New Labour in Britain. Along with simplistic market populism, the neoliberal social ideology and political economy promoted an individual’s right to choose apparently almost any commodity or service, or within more conservative limits, almost any lifestyle as a fundamental modern freedom. In Australia, the supremacy of choice was pursued most successfully by the Howard government of 1996-2007, formed by the coalition of the Liberal and National parties (Robison 2006, 5). While evident in array of policies, that government’s agenda on health and education in particular demonstrated the “life long commitment to the politics of choice, social conservatism and individual responsibility” of Prime Minister Howard who presented the “choice between the public and private” systems in these areas as a “universal right, not the privilege of a wealthy few” (Maiden 2006, 133). However, the pinnacle of neoliberal policy initiatives under Howard was the 2006 Workchoices industrial relations legislation that gave “greater scope to market forces” in determining industrial relations outcomes by castrating the powers of trade unions and the Australian Industrial Relations Commission and promoting the use of individual employment contracts, which were presented as heightening both employers’ and employees’ choices (Woodward 2010).

3. Post Feminism in the Neoliberal Order

At first glance, the universalisation of choice as a fundamental right in modern democracies might seem to indicate a success of feminism, or at least to be of benefit to feminist framings of social and economic structures.  However, while the “absence of choice is clearly unattractive” (Baker 2008, 59), feminist scholars have long noted their suspicion “even fear, that autonomy and choice” idealised within a neoliberal economy are “traps that will only further ensnare women in disadvantage and degradation” (Hadfield 1996, 338), especially when deployed in industrial relations. Gillian Hadfield writes that feminist hostility towards the discourses of contract and the market is multi layered. At the core is a “deeply held concern that market relations, contract relations, reflect an impoverished and destructive vision of human relationships” (1996, 340). Feminist authors who develop Rosalind Pollack Petchesky’s formative analysis of reproduction note that, “the contemporary legacy of choice is such that it encourages the notion of motherhood is a private choice of each individual woman, not a public issue” (O”Brien Hallstein 2008, 149).

More recently, feminists have illustrated the ways in which the lauding of choice and the apparent “fusing” of “palatable elements” of liberal feminism with concepts of “self production and rational choice so fundamental to neoliberalism” act as a “decoy for domination” of all women, and young women especially (Baker 2008, 6). In particular, Angela McRobbie’s work has been influential in this area. McRobbie describes the “double entanglement” of post feminism which involves the “re-regulation” of women through “choice” (in Baker 2008, 6), by way of a “co existence of neo conservative values in relation to gender, sexuality and family life” with processes of “liberalisation in regard to choice and diversity in domestic, sexual and kinship relations” (McRobbie 2010, 255). Contemporary post feminism is a political strategy that facilitates a program central to neoliberalism, of undoing the “anti hierarchical struggles” of past social movements (McRobbie 2010, 130) through the  “simultaneous incorporation, revision, and de-politicisation of many of the central goals of second wave feminism” (Stacey in Hawkesworth 2004, 967). It does this, in part, to annihilate the threat to liberal democratic regimes of feminist strategies that attempt to “subvert the dominant political and economic systems” by enabling women’s equal political representation and participation in public and private decision making (Hawkesworth 2004, 978).  Post feminism is a “kind of anti feminism”, reliant, paradoxically, on an “assumption that feminism has been taken into account” (McRobbie 2001, 130), and “transformed into a form of Gramscian common sense, while also fiercely repudiated, indeed almost hated” (McRobbie 2010, 255).

According to McRobbie, within neoliberalism buoyed by post feminist discourse, “elements of feminism have been taken into account and have been absolutely incorporated into political and institutional life.” She continues: “Drawing on a vocabulary that includes words like ‘empowerment’ and ‘choice’ these elements are then converted into a much more individualistic discourse and they are deployed in this new guise, particularly in media and popular culture, but also by agencies of the state, as a kind of substitute for  feminism.  These new and seemingly ‘modern’ ideas about women and especially young women are then disseminated more aggressively, so as to ensure that a new women’s movement will not re emerge” (2010).

McRobbie notes how the ideal of choice has become “synonymous with a kind of feminism” centred on individual women’s privileges as consumers but, perversely, this value is held to be evidence of the redundancy of feminism in neoliberal societies, and to “drive a wedge between women” of different generations, by shuffling feminists into the “realms of a bygone age” (2010, 12). This generational disconnect forms part of a disarticulation that functions to foreclose on the possibility of “various expansive intersections and intergenerational feminist transmissions. Articulations are therefore reversed, broken off, and the idea of a new feminist political imaginary becomes increasingly inconceivable” (2010, 29). This undoing of feminism was facilitated not only by neoliberal ideology but also by the feminist academy which in the 1990s tended to dismantle itself in anti universalist introspection, and a disavowal of theories  of sexual power. For example, Lynne Segal identifies “a near epidemic of political forgetting from the 1990s onwards” that infiltrated contemporary feminisms at this time (Adkins 2004, 431).

McRobbie points to the “eccentric recanting” of prominent feminists such as Betty Freidan and Germaine Greer in the 1990s, that “actually we got it wrong” when questioning motherhood and family ideals, as central to the dismantling of feminism (2010, 38), but it was Naomi Wolf”s 1995 denouncement of the pro-choice movement that had the most profound effects for mainstream feminist framings of abortion. In the wake of the phenomenal fame and controversy of The Beauty Myth, Wolf published “Our Bodies, Our Souls” in The New Republic where she argued for a “radical shift in the pro-choice movement’s rhetoric and consciousness about abortion”, to embrace the “paradigm of sin and redemption”. Otherwise, warned Wolf, feminists were in jeopardy of losing their “souls”, as well as the political argument for abortion rights (1995, 26-35). Although McRobbie does not address abortion or Naomi Wolf, I argue that Wolf”s New Republic piece marks a point of cataclysm for feminism, as the most public moment of generational disconnect over the foremost symbol of second wave feminism – abortion as choice. Wolf represented not the old guard confronting its regrets, but arguably the most popular contemporary feminist voice of her time. Her article constituted an important moment in the launch of post feminism, as it depended on the ‘truth’ of feminist success when it identified abortion as accessed and performed far too rarely as a matter of grave morality appropriate to religious deliberation, and all too frequently as a matter of convenience.

Although she was criticised for presenting a “caricature of the pro-choice stance as full of heartless, hard women, and the perhaps unwitting elevation of [her] own stance as the sole or lonely moral voice in the pro choice wilderness” (Porter 1999, 89), Wolf’s arguments were welcomed and gained traction in both pro-life and feminist circles. Of course, abortion as choice has been questioned in other feminist contexts. For example, Christine Stolba has noted the weak ethical mooring of feminism’s “valorisation of choice in reproductive matters and its exaltation of individualism” to confront challenges posed by abortion associated with new reproductive technologies (2003, 32). This weakness is also noted by those who argue that the “claim to a right to choice carries less moral weight than the claim to a right to life” which is deployed by anti-abortionists with a pro-life focus; and the association of choice with racist and eugenicist policies has also prompted criticism (Smyth 2002, 335 & 337). However, Wolf’s synopsis of abortion debates as encompassing a pseudo religious tragedy had an easily transmissible and therefore influential, populist message.

In Australia, ethicist Leslie Cannold was motivated by Wolf to publish The Abortion Myth (1998). The book argued for legally protected abortion by configuring abortion as concerning a matter of grave personal morality for individual women, rather than rights or choice, and criticised (flailing) pro-choice feminism as implicated in “the slow and arduous process” of abortion law reform in Australia (Brankovich 2001, 87). Following this, Cannold published What? No Baby? (2005), questioning women’s ability to choose motherhood in contemporary society. In 2000 ‘pro-life feminist’ Melinda Tankard-Reist capitalised on contemporary ambivalence about choice to publish Giving Sorrow Words which portrayed women as regretting their abortions, and as having been pressured unfairly to succumb to societies’ or men’s expectations to abort. In this depiction, women are unable to exercise their choice to continue their pregnancies, especially those of difficult circumstances; women’s authentic choice is actually non-existent, thus choice is rendered null and void in the debate over abortion. Although they reach very different conclusions about abortion, both Cannold and Tankard-Reist identify themselves as feminists and both problematise abortion as choice. Both authors continue to dominate public debate in Australia, and their books have been quoted extensively in parliamentary debates. Within post feminism which denies the materialist and structuralist analyses of the feminisms of the past, choice has been exalted in terms of neoliberal (consumer) citizenship, while its efficacy in regard to abortion has become all the more questioned by those who support, and condemn, abortion.

4. Conservatism, Neoliberalism and Post Feminism in Australia

Foremost among McRobbie’s claims about post feminism, is that of the existence of a new sexual contract that facilitates women in neoliberal societies living as individual consumers and workers, so they may perform as “economically active female citizens” (2010, 58). Contraception and “responsible” (non procreative) sexual practices are central to this contract, which is supported by a widespread vilification of young mothers “across the divisions of class and ethnicity”. The new sexual contract of post feminism holds that “[s]o long as she does not procreate while enjoying casual and recreational sex, the young     woman is entitled to pursue sexual desire seemingly without punishment. Indeed the appropriate uses of sexual pleasure are prescribed within the many manuals and forms of  instruction which constitute the terms and conditions of this new sexual contract” (McRobbie 2010, 85).

McRobbie’s arguments are made mostly in the context of Blair’s New Labour in Britain. It is revealing to note in contrast, the use of the sexual contract and post feminist discourse in a conservative, neoliberal political environment, especially when examining the place of abortion in that contract. Indeed abortion, along with its compelling insights provided about feminism and women’s lives, proves to be an informative proxy by which to assess the limits of social neoliberalism for a certain stream of conservatism. It is regrettable, given the cogency of her analysis, that McRobbie does not address abortion in the context of post feminism or neoliberalism. In Australia, in keeping with the new sexual contract, young motherhood has generally been cast as “counter to the discourses of neoliberalism and post-feminism which reject welfare dependency and encourage young women to delay motherhood until they have attained an education, career and some sexual and romantic experience” (Simic 2011, 430). Teenage pregnancy is therefore targeted as in need of remedy and prevention by both major political parties in Australia. The question of teenage abortion however reveals certain fundamental tensions between conservatism and neoliberalism, as embodied by the Liberal Party in particular.

Waleed Aly writes that the future of conservatism is a question of “great political moment” in Australia: the current struggle in the Liberal party “is one over ideas” and the twin traditions of liberalism and conservatism (2010, 7). The Party was founded and named by social conservative Robert Menzies in 1942. It was, he said, “determined to be a progressive party” that until the end of the cold war found its niche in opposing Labor’s “brand of socialism” (Van Onselen 2011).  In the 1980s a fierce fight for ideological direction was commenced within the party and consolidated on the election of John Howard in 1996, who called himself the party’s most conservative leader. However the current leader, Tony Abbott, has since vied for this title by serving as the “spiritual leader of the conservative wing of the party” (Van Onselen 2011). Although lately Abbott has been shown to have moved to the centre to compete with Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard and soften his image as a “creepy religious bully” (Scanlon 2010), he identifies foremost as a conservative in the traditions of Edmund Burke, Michael Oakshott, and others (Abbott 2009). As Health Minister under Howard (2003-2007), Abbott initiated an ongoing anti-abortion debate which led to the first serious consideration of the question by the Australian Parliament since early 1980s. Abbott broke twenty-five years of “quarantined” bipartisan consensus on abortion (Maddox 2005, 103) in making repeated public invitations to fellow Christians and church leaders to create a public discourse around the topic. As abortion regulation is mostly an issue for the states, I have argued elsewhere that Abbott’s efforts were aimed primarily to mark out his political identity, as Australia’s leading conservative politician, and perhaps to provoke tensions within the Labor party over its abortion policies and platforms (Gleeson 2011).

The long standing public consensus and legislative settlement on abortion in Australia meant that Abbott’s strategy was ineffective and perhaps counter-productive for him. However, the reliance on this settlement to provide for continued abortion access is one of the factors that Hawkesworth identifies as instrumental in providing for the demise of feminism. When feminist goals are reduced to those amenable to legislative solutions, “once legislation has been passed, feminism is rendered obsolete. Thus, while the conceptualisation of feminism as a social movement highlights one form of feminist activism in certain periods, it has the ironic effect of declaring feminism dead long before feminists have achieved the social transformations they envision” (2004, 973).  The ‘death’ of feminism is, of course, the central truism of post feminism, which was invoked by Abbott in his anti-abortion campaign, when he reached beyond his traditional constituency of conservative Christians, to portray abortion as a failure for and of women. As Opposition Leader, Abbott made clumsy statements that suggest his personal approach to the new sexual contract (telling a leading women’s magazine that he would advise his daughters that sex is “the greatest gift that you can give someone” (Maguire 2010)); and to the liberalising trends of social neoliberalism (stating that he felt a “bit threatened” by homosexuality (Hudson 2011)). His statements on abortion as Health Minister, however, provide the most revealing information about the limits for Abbott of social neoliberalism and the new sexual contract, as they appear to involve a deployment of post feminist discourse.

As noted, in Australia, both anti-abortion and pro-abortion authors have popularly problematised abortion in post feminist traditions. Abbott’s arguments, made first publicly in a speech at Adelaide University in March 2004, mirrored these depictions of abortion, in focusing not on the ‘rights’ of the foetus, but in calling for a more weighty moral consideration on the procedure focused on the nature of women’s pregnancy choices.  Abbott described abortion as a national tragedy, a “legacy of unutterable shame” and as an “objectively grave matter” that has been reduced to a “question of the mother’s convenience”.  He asked, “what does it say about the state of our relationships and our values that so many women (and their husbands, lovers and families) feel incapable of coping with a pregnancy or a child?” (Gleeson 2011). In Parliament Abbott appeared to implicate feminists when he described abortion as experienced “almost by some as a badge of liberation from old oppressions” (Eastley 2006).  In this view, feminism supposedly encourages women to abort not in terms of their social or economic need to control their reproduction, but in terms of their individualistic preferences (Hayes 2007, 27), something that could occur only in a society in which feminism has already been ‘taken into account’. And, despite the atypical nature of teenage abortion in Australia, Abbott stated: “[t]o a pregnant 14 year old struggling to grasp what’s happening, a senior student with a  whole life mapped out or a mother already failing to cope under difficult circumstances,  abortion is the easy way out. It’s hardly surprising that people should choose the most convenient exit from awkward situations. What seems to be considered far less often is avoiding situations where difficult choices might arise. […] If half the effort were put into discouraging teenage promiscuity as into preventing teenage speeding, there might be  fewer abortions, fewer traumatised young women and fewer dysfunctional families” (Abbott 2004).

As I have noted, the wedge driven between women which “sets off the mother, the teacher, and the feminist” into the past is one of the means by which post feminism “undoes” feminism (McRobbie 2010, 12) by rendering it redundant. In the case of conservative anti-abortion arguments such as Abbott’s, the undisputed success of feminism forms the basis of claims for its moral failings. Abortion is portrayed not only as utilised as an amoral matter of convenience, but also simultaneously, as a problem for young women failed by society and implicitly, failed by the feminist movement that has promoted the ideal of pregnancy termination as ‘convenience’. Both feminism and individual women are demonised for the immorality of pregnancy termination, and teenagers are cast as victims of a feminist success, thus suggesting a new twist on the sexual contract in keeping with conservative values, disseminated to condemn abortion. The conservative iteration of the new sexual contract deploys presumptions about feminism’s success, almost as if by magic, to invoke its concurrent failings. Hence Patricia Hayes argues that in one fell swoop Tony Abbott succeeded in “making vocal again the dormant, yet ubiquitous, discourse of the promiscuous, selfish woman who is damned if she does continue her pregnancy and damned if she doesn’t; the double bind of women as responsible for the decline of functional families and moral standards defined by continuing the pregnancy as a single parent, yet ‘suffering’ the automatically assumed effect of trauma as  result of having an abortion” (Hayes 2007, 28).

5. The Limits of Social Neoliberalism: Abortion

Conservative anti-abortion arguments, like those of Tony Abbott’s, do not advocate teenage motherhood as a solution to abortion, nor do they tend to advocate for contraception. Instead, they argue for the discouragement of ‘teenage promiscuity’. In this regard the conservative anti-abortion case is at odds with the new sexual contract of post feminism, despite the shared goal of delayed motherhood, and the mutually invoked discourse of feminist success. For this reason, I have stated that the place of abortion in the ideologies of conservatives provides insight into the limits of social neoliberalism. Since the 1990s the Liberal Party in Australia has tried to balance an almost impossible blend of free market rhetoric and social conservatism, promising that “the free market would enable everyone who worked hard to get rich, yet the familiar world of hearth and home would remain unchanged” (Scanlon 2010). In areas of social policy Abbott upholds the conservative value of an “absence of improvement” and yet he lists as his heroes “the great economic agents of change” Thatcher, Reagan and Howard (Manne 2010, 11). It appears sometimes to be a most uncomfortable fit for conservatives like Abbott, because “neoliberalism is above all a prescription for freedom….Almost nothing of this is conservative. In fact, neoliberalism’s radically market based view of the social world is deeply un conservative” (Aly 2010, 30 & 34).

One arena in which the market has been thought to be safe terrain for conservatives is that of the regulation of the worker. As Workplace Relations Minister (2001-2003) Abbott gained a reputation as a ‘head kicker’ and being particularly harsh to the unemployed. The deregulation of industrial relations under the guise of ‘flexibility’ and ‘choice’ is considered to have been a life long goal of John Howard, which once accomplished by way of Workchoices led to the defeat of his Government in 2007. However, the love-affair with a deregulated industrial world is maintained inconsistently by the Liberals. Abbott champions “small government and low taxes” (Manne 2010, 11), and in 2002 stated that compulsory paid maternity leave would be introduced “over this government’s dead body” (Franklin 2010). However, as Opposition Leader in 2010 Abbott recanted and advocated a generous maternity leave package to be funded by a 1.7 per cent levy on Australia’s 3200 largest businesses (Scanlon 2011), in order to manipulate the market to promote heightened labour force participation outcomes. Facilitating the maximum participation of workers, in contradiction of the free market, is the overriding aim of the policy. As is the goal of wooing estranged women voters. Abortion symbolises one of the potent limits for social neoliberalism among conservatives like Abbott, because as Aly observes, neoliberalism is “quite prepared to sweep away cultural norms and social structures that cannot be rationalised in market terms, quite inconsistently with the conservative reverence for the mysterious qualities of society and the desire for gradual change that is organic rather than ardently ideological in origin” (Aly 2010, 35). In this equation, despite its capacity to facilitate the woman-as-worker along the lines of the new sexual contract, and despite its having been secured historically along liberal ideals of individual freedom and autonomy, abortion is condemned.

While the conservative condemnation of abortion is perhaps not breaking news, especially when performed by Catholics like Abbott, the authority this position may take from feminists such as Naomi Wolf, perhaps is. Conservatives need look only to the pages of the New Republic of 1995 to find (post)feminist authority for their anti-abortion position that stands as contra to free marketeering. For amid the relentless academic deconstruction of feminism of the mid 1990s, Wolf wrote that “[t]he pro-life warning about the potential of widespread abortion to degrade reverence for life does have a nugget of truth: a free-market rhetoric about abortion can, indeed,  contribute to the eerie situation we are now facing, wherein the culture seems increasingly to see babies not as creatures to whom parents devote their lives, but as  accoutrements to enhance parental quality of life. Day by day, babies seem to have less value in themselves, in a matrix of the sacred, than they do as products with a value dictated by a market economy” (1995, 29).

Wolf seamlessly blurs the feminist and neoliberal constructs of choice to damn them both. This move appears to be in keeping with the legacy of post feminism in general, which at best invokes a ‘cherry picking’ approach applied to both neoliberalism and choice, exhibiting  no materialist (or even liberal) commitment to abortion rights per se.

In the second half of the 20th century feminist claims for abortion developed from materialist to individualistic liberal claims, framed most memorably in terms of choice. Once legislative solutions to abortion access were secured from the 1970s onwards feminists, both pro and anti abortion, aired their growing ambivalence about choice, especially in the 1990s when the worldwide supremacy of neoliberalism as a political ideology was apparent, and academic feminism chartered a concurrent course of introspection. This ambivalence came to be seized on to prove the anti feminist message of post feminism, which perversely celebrates choice in many arenas other than abortion. Among conservatives, ambivalence about choice has been used to ‘prove’ the amorality of the traditional feminist argument for abortion. The neoliberal configuration of the citizen as worker first and consumer second is facilitated by post feminism and the new sexual contract, but in the hands of the conservatives this contract is manipulated to condemn abortion (and perhaps sexual freedoms). In conservative hands the new sexual contract upholds feminism’s success to illustrate its moral failings of the next generation of women, while conservatives themselves skillfully sidestep broader feminist critiques of the neoliberal appropriation of choice in areas such as industrial relations.



[1] An earlier version of this article was presented to the 2nd European Conference on Gender and Politics, Central European University, Budapest 11-13 January 2011. Research for this article was conducted with the support of an Australian Postdoctoral Fellowship 2009-2013.


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