White Ribbon Australia has backtracked on its decision to withdraw a statement that said “all women should have complete control over their reproductive and sexual health”.
The anti-domestic violence charity’s new chief executive Tracy McLeod Howe told BuzzFeed News on Thursday that the organisation had withdrawn the statement because "we are agnostic until our stakeholders tell us it is important to most of them".
"My job is to represent a movement of diverse members of a community who range in age and gender and religion and viewpoints."
The retracted statement was first issued in February 2017 during a previous push to decriminalise abortion in Queensland and highlights that research indicates unplanned pregnancy is more common among women experiencing domestic violence.
White Ribbon Australia did not announce the initial retraction, but BuzzFeed News understands members of the organisation contacted a number of pregnancy option counselling and sexual health providers to notify them of the shift on Thursday, the morning after politicians voted to decriminalise abortion in Queensland.
After significant backlash to the decision, McLeod Howe said on Friday she should not have withdrawn the statement.
In a subsequent statement, White Ribbon said it "maintains the current position on women's reproductive rights".
The organisation said it will undergo an immediate and comprehensive consultation with its stakeholders, the result of which will be communicated.
"Whilst the intention had been to remedy the process under the original statement of support, this has been viewed as a change in stance around reproductive rights," the statement on Friday said.
"We apologise for the confusion and we look forward to working with our stakeholders on this important issue."
Brisbane-based all-options counselling service Children by Choice was emailed by a White Ribbon Australia staff member the morning after the Queensland vote passed.
The staff member congratulated the service on the historic win and requested a phone call to talk more about the decision to retract White Ribbon’s reproductive rights statement before it became “common knowledge”.
Children by Choice’s manager Daile Kelleher told BuzzFeed News that “by retracting their position statement supporting women living with sexual violence and reproductive coercion” White Ribbon Australia had “turned its back on vulnerable women”.
“We are shocked that during such a historic week in Queensland for women’s reproductive rights after the decriminalisation of abortion, that White Ribbon would turn their back on women experiencing reproductive coercion,” Kelleher said.
“Reproductive coercion includes tampering with contraception to force a partner into pregnancy, as well as coercion into terminating a pregnancy.”
Children by Choice assisted White Ribbon in drafting the statement that has been withdrawn.
“Of the almost 1,700 clients we speak to in our pregnancy counselling service each year, 35% are experiencing domestic violence and 15% are experiencing reproductive coercion – with 74% of these women being coerced into pregnancy, 26% to abortion,” Kelleher said.
“For White Ribbon Australia to completely ignore this reality of women living with violence and control is deeply upsetting.”
McLeod Howe told BuzzFeed News the decision had been coming for at least two weeks when “senior management” were “fielding calls from so many places”.
“I’ve been in my job for probably eight weeks and [White Ribbon Australia’s reproductive rights statement has] come up again and again around Australia,” she said.
Multiple Christian parishes condemned the statement late last year, but McLeod Howe insisted the organisation hadn’t “buckled to Catholics” and that there were people from all facets of the community who didn’t agree with the statement.
“Some people were furious because they are pro-life and some were furious because they haven’t been consulted and [the statement] hadn’t been relayed, so they are signing up as an ambassador and then you’re also an advocate of this political position,” she said.
McLeod Howe said one volunteer told her the organisation should have “followed a consultation process” before releasing a statement on reproductive rights.
“He said, ‘I’m pro-life, but if I’d been outnumbered on all of this I would have just gone well [a pro-life stance] is not what this movement thinks, but I was never given the opportunity’,” she said.
McLeod Howe was surprised the statement was still available on White Ribbon’s website as of Thursday night.
“We are a movement of 16,000 volunteers and over 1,000 ambassadors and our job is about ending male violence against women, and we took a political position without asking one [of the volunteers or ambassadors] about it, and I come from bodies where you consult with your stakeholders about their priority issues," McLeod Howe, who has previously worked as the chief executive of the NSW Council of Social Services and Domestic Violence NSW, said.
“We have vision words and one of them is ‘brave’, and that should be brave on behalf of the movement. Most people don’t even know it was our position until they get slagged in communities.”
Last year White Ribbon Australia’s former chief executive Libby Davies told BuzzFeed News the organisation “would not compromise” on the statement.
“There were some [White Ribbon ambassadors] who couldn’t see the link between reproductive rights and violence prevention, so we discussed the statement ... there were a handful of ambassadors who withdrew from the organisation on religious grounds,” Davies told BuzzFeed News in August 2017.
“That was probably a good thing as their values don’t align with the movement. We made it clear that as a movement we would not compromise on the statement.”
Davies said reproductive coercion was when a male partner made “decisions that restricted or denied a woman autonomy over her reproductive and sexual health”.
“Respectful relationship education, access to contraception, access to abortion and post-abortion support for women and financial and social support for women who want to continue a pregnancy, these are all choices that women have the right to execute and act on,” Davies said at the time.
“The men engaged in our White Ribbon campaigns value that notion of equality.”
Davies attended a reproductive coercion roundtable chaired by writer Jane Caro in Brisbane last year.
The organisation backed the statement again in November 2017 when Australian Conservatives senator Cory Bernardi moved a motion against White Ribbon Australia for supporting reproductive rights.
McLeod Howe told BuzzFeed News she “doesn't remember” this motion and that she only became aware members of the organisation’s volunteer base were unhappy with the statement once she took up the job.
The motion, which opposed the organisation for supporting safe and publicly available abortions, was voted down 31 to 41, but garnered the support of finance minister Mathias Cormann.
“Contrary to some of the views in parliament today, the real position of White Ribbon is solidarity with the basic right of women to control their own reproductive health, through nationally uniform laws and protecting human rights,” a spokesperson told BuzzFeed News at the time.
“We support the decriminalisation of abortion and nationally consistent access to safe and legal abortion, and support for women throughout the process and afterwards.”
In 2016, the organisation distanced itself from anti-abortion Queensland MP Mark Robinson, who called himself a “White Ribbon Man” when rallying against a bill to decriminalise abortion in Queensland, saying it would remove protections from women he claimed were being “coerced” into abortions by their violent partners.
Robinson was not a White Ribbon ambassador, but had “taken the pledge” against violence against women, Davies said.
Australia’s biggest provider of termination services, reproductive health service Marie Stopes Australia, has condemned White Ribbon Australia’s retraction of its reproductive rights statement.
The organisation’s chief executive Michelle Thompson said she was “profoundly disappointed” in White Ribbon Australia.
“The decision to retract this statement sends a dangerous message to our community and ignores the growing evidence of strong links between reproductive coercion, family violence, intimate partner violence, and sexual violence,” Thompson told BuzzFeed News.
Thompson said her organisation had worked closely with White Ribbon Australia on a forthcoming white paper on reproductive coercion, and Marie Stopes Australia had subsequently entered into the White Ribbon Workplace Accreditation Program.
“Marie Stopes Australia has notified White Ribbon Australia of our official withdrawal from the Workplace Accreditation Program,” Thompson said.
A spokesperson for Marie Stopes Australia said the organisation assisted 169 women across Australia to access termination and contraception services over the past year through its Choice Fund, and 34% of those women reported domestic violence, while 13% had experienced reproductive coercion.
McLeod Howe said she “really respects” Marie Stopes Australia and other reproductive healthcare services.
“But we never asked widely or deeply on this issue,” she said.
If you or someone you know is experiencing violence and need help or support, there are national and state-based agencies that can assist you 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).