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17 Jul 2019 23:31
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  •   Home > News > International

    Pussy Riot and rape survivors fight back against Alabama's 'extreme' abortion ban

    They call it the "Alabama bump". Two months after this state banned almost all abortions, donations are flowing, a clinic is being built, and a Russian punk band has arrived.

    In a space-themed live music venue in America's deep south, a famous Russian feminist is preparing to take centre stage.

    Nadezhda "Nadya" Tolokonnikova is best known for her performances with protest punk-rock group Pussy Riot.

    Her presence here in downtown Birmingham is a striking sign of what some activists are calling the "Alabama bump".

    Ever since this conservative state passed a near-total ban on abortion in mid-May, so-called "pro-choice" groups say they have seen a surge in support from outraged women across the globe.

    "I woke up one morning very angry about Alabama's extreme laws," Tolokonnikova told the ABC.

    "My American friends were even more angry, so we said, 'let's go there to hold a benefit to raise money for local groups to help fight this'."

    Tolokonnikova garnered worldwide attention in 2012 when she was jailed for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" after a Pussy Riot appearance in a Moscow Orthodox cathedral.

    The letters of support she received while behind bars kept her going and she hopes her performance in Birmingham will similarly encourage activists in Alabama.

    "In a globalised world it's no longer enough to say, 'that doesn't relate to me'. Politicians, people everywhere are connected," Ms Tolokonnikova said.

    The punk rock singer fears that other nations, including Russia, could follow in the United States' footsteps.

    "[President Vladimir] Putin points a lot at policy of United States. Even though he hates it, for some reason he prefers to pick the worst from it," she said.

    "I'm just scared Putin will be like, 'they ban abortions, why don't we do the same?'"

    'We are trying to stop a holocaust of babies'

    This year, conservative states right across America's south and mid-west have been rushing to dramatically wind back abortion laws.

    They hope to trigger a legal challenge and convince the Supreme Court to overturn the landmark 1973 decision Roe vs Wade, which effectively made the procedure legal across the nation.

    Of all the legislative changes around the nation, Alabama's are the most restrictive.

    If the laws ever come into effect, abortion would be illegal in nearly all circumstances.

    There are no exemptions for rape or incest.

    "We are trying to stop a holocaust of babies," said Joy Pinto, an Alabama anti-abortion campaigner who is a big supporter of the changes.

    "We as a state have drawn a line in the sand. The people of God fought such a great fight."

    Ms Pinto runs Her Choice Birmingham Women's Centre.

    From the outside, it looks like the sort of facility that might perform abortions.

    But it is an organisation that uses a variety of methods to persuade mothers with unwanted pregnancies not to have terminations.

    There are model foetuses on desks, a poster of a child on the wall and women are told about the "guilt" they will feel if they have an abortion.

    They are also offered free ultrasounds, something Ms Pinto believes is a "game-changer".

    "I have friends who were conceived in rape and they're really glad they're alive. The baby is the innocent. God can bring a greater good out of every evil, even rape," she said.

    "We let women know the truth. Human life begins at conception and is sacred."

    Rape victim 'terrified' by the ban

    Many sexual assault victims stridently disagree with Ms Pinto's claims.

    Samantha Blakely, who was raped by a co-worker two years ago, said Alabama's laws are a nightmare for her.

    "If I had been forced to have my rapist's baby, I would have taken my own life," Ms Blakely said.

    "Either by trying to end the pregnancy in a dangerous way or just my mental state. I eventually would not have been able to withstand the trauma."

    When Ms Blakely had an abortion she had to walk past protestors shouting Bible verses and was forced to look at an image of the foetus on an ultrasound.

    She now shares her story in the hope of reaching vulnerable women who might find themselves in a similar situation.

    "My experience was traumatic, but I don't regret my abortion and I don't think I ever will," she said.

    "Women have a right to choose what happens to their bodies. I believe we can't ever let these new laws come into effect," Ms Blakely said.

    Large clinic destined for Birmingham

    Even in this religious state, stories like Ms Blakely's divide the anti-abortion movement.

    At a national level, there are several pro-life activists who think a gradual tightening of laws would have been a better, less controversial way to proceed.

    They believe the near-total ban is too far ahead of public opinion, triggering an unwanted backlash and unwanted global attention.

    "They've overreached," said Staci Fox from Planned Parenthood.

    Her organisation is the largest reproductive health service provider in the United States and is currently building a large clinic in the centre of Birmingham.

    "When there are any attacks on women's bodily autonomy and their rights, we see people getting off the couch and getting upset," Ms Fox said.

    Much to the disgust of anti-abortion groups who regularly gather in front of the site for prayer and protest, it will be visible and easily accessible from a major interstate highway.

    The organisation is also helping challenge Alabama's laws in court and hopes the ban will be swiftly struck down.

    Planned Parenthood and the Yellowhammer Fund, which helps disadvantaged women access Alabama's three remaining abortion clinics, will both receive the proceeds from Pussy Riot's concert.

    The Moscow-based group jokingly suggested it is the right type of Russian political meddling.

    "We're open about it though," Tolokonnikova said with a wry smile.

    "I just want to say to all the activists here, 'you're f****** brilliant. Keep going'."

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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