For those who would prefer to watch and listen to Melinda discuss her pro-life views and Christian commitments, I reccomend this OnePlusOne interview with ABC journalist Jane Hutcheon.
Melinda Tankard Reist
by Brian Baxter
Formed early in 2005, Women's Forum Australia (WFA) is one of the more recent exponents of so-called 'pro-life feminism' in this country. While adopting the title of 'feminist' and claiming to speak for a significant proportion of Australian women, WFA leaders take a political line on issues such as abortion which seems entirely consistent with that of conservative Christianity.
Melinda Tankard Reist is founding director of WFA and one of the best-known promoters of anti-choice feminism in Australia. Here we will examine her background in some detail.
Melinda was born in Mildura, northern Victoria in 1963 and grew up on a vineyard/fruit property. This farm had been in her family's hands for five generations.
Melinda seems to have been a very kind-hearted girl and tells some stories about childhood events that may have some bearing on her current ideas and activities. There were many cats on the Tankard property and Melinda loved to care for the smallest kittens. She noticed that her parents always took special care of the mother cats and understood from this that 'mothers were to be looked after and cared for'. However, there were traumatic times as well:
Sick kittens ... were dispatched with a quick bullet to the head ... This was not [from] any cruelty on my father's part - it's just what you did with sick animals. ('Min OK?' I overheard him ask my mother after ending the life of a particularly favoured black, blue-eyed and very ill kitten while I hid in my room so my tears would not be seen.)
It's clearly true that shooting distressed animals is part of country life; less clear is the long-term effect of these events on individual children. Perhaps Melinda was philosophical about such executions as she seems to have been when her father shot her favourite (but physically failing) dog 'out of love'; but another incident involving her pet pony, Kim, had a more lasting aftermath:
... [O]ne day Kim seemed particularly stubborn. We could not get her to move in the yard and we were keen to ride. [My friend] Lee wanted to work on my cantering technique. The afternoon was planned. Despite much kicking and harsh words, [Kim] stood firm. Something was wrong but we were too foolish to realise. The next morning, Lee found a white colt with a black head and white blaze, fully formed but stillborn, in the paddock. We were devastated.
For many years, Melinda blamed herself for the colt's death. Over twenty years later she unburdened herself to her friend:
'Lee, it was our fault Kim's foal died. I've never forgotten and we were to blame that her lovely colt lay dead. She was pregnant and we rode her anyway.'
Lee offered a reply but Melinda still seems disconsolate. Could this experience have sown a seed?
(Material in this section is drawn mainly from short pieces Reist contributed to three Spinifex Press compilations by Jan Fook et al. (eds.): A Girl's Best Friend , Cat Tales  and Horse Dreams
After leaving school, Melinda Tankard became a cadet journalist in a local newspaper office and in 1987 was awarded a Rotary Foundation Scholarship to study journalism in the United States. This visit to America seems to have marked the beginning of her interest in the anti-choice movement. On 8 April 1988, the Melbourne Age published an article by her entitled 'The Politics of Abortion'. The introductory blurb noted that:
... [a] woman's right to continue or terminate a pregnancy has seemed secure here and in the US. But Melinda Tankard reports some increasingly sophisticated legal challenges from the pro-life movement in America, and talks with local groups about how this could affect Australia.
Unlike almost all of Tankard's later work, this wide-ranging article tried hard to tell both sides of the story. Quotes from the US National Right to Life Association and Black Americans for Life were 'balanced' by quotes from the National Abortion Rights Action League and the Planned Parenthood Federation. In Melbourne, Tankard spoke with both Margaret Tighe of the Right to Life Association (RTLA) and Ruth Shnookal of the Right to Choose Coalition.
While it is no easy task to judge Tankard's personal position on abortion from this article, there were some straws in the wind. She seemed rather sympathetic towards the development in America of 'pro-life feminism': Feminists for Life [FFL], born when the National Organisation for Women began expelling pro-life feminists from its ranks in 1972, is also attracting greater attention. With a growing membership of 2000, comprising women from the disarmament movement, pro-life activists with feminist sympathies, and liberal feminists, FFL has demonstrated that a pro-life position is not limited to the Right. National vice-president Rosemary Bottcher says women cannot liberate themselves by aborting their babies. 'The arguments of pro-abortionists treat pregnancy as a disease and are anti-women', she said.
Tankard also asked the RTLA's Margaret Tighe a question about the 'do-it-yourself' abortion pill RU 486, an issue which only now seems to be entering the final stages of resolution. Tighe dismissed RU 486 as 'a once-a-month booby trap', complaining that women would become guinea pigs in trials of the medication. The concept of women as guinea pigs is one to which Tankard has often returned during the ensuing 18 years.
By 1989, Tankard was describing herself as 'a Melbourne freelance journalist' (evidently spending some time as a contributor to the Herald's racing guide) and was forging down her 'pro-life feminism' path. Her article 'Feminists who say no to abortion' (Age, 12 April 1989) consisted of a detailed description of this movement followed by a few mainstream feminist criticisms, but the core of Tankard's personal ideology was now in place:
Pro-life feminism's basic tenet is that women cannot liberate themselves by aborting their babies; that society, not the woman, needs to be reconstructed ...[L]ife feminists view abortion as part of the oppression of women ...
Ruth Shnookal of Right to Choose had no trouble reading between the lines:
... [I]t is important to emphasise that all feminists believe that contraception is vastly preferable to abortion and work hard to promote family planning information and availability. Why, therefore, does Melinda Tankard not mention this? ... We have read RTL propaganda for years, and Tankard's article covers a lot of very familiar ground. Using 'feminist' arguments is a popular tactic nowadays. (Age, 26 April 1989)
But Margaret Tighe thought Tankard's article 'excellent' and by the following year, Melinda was appearing on the RTLA's
Can someone be feminist, a journalist ... and PRO-LIFE? Melinda Tankard is! You can gain an understanding of how women's rights and the right to life of unborn babies really go hand in hand. Melinda is keen to share with you this new angle on abortion ... ('Interesting speakers', Right To Life News, July 1990, p.2)
Tankard would speak to groups of all sizes and was also scheduled as a 'Youth Forum' speaker at the RTLA 1990 Convention. (ibid., p.3) She was also listed as a 'justice and life issues' presenter at the main conference itself. (RTLA Convention 1990 leaflet)
It was also at about this time that Tankard began her special study of 'the abuses committed on women in family-planning programs worldwide'. (China For Women: Travel and Culture, 1995. Spinifex Press. p. 350) This and similar interests ultimately led to her securing an advisor's position with the independent senator for Tasmania, Brian Harradine.
Early in the 1990s, Melinda Tankard married David Reist, with whom she was later to have four children. (An early reference to her new name occurs in her article 'Asylum for a Second Child', Age, 5 December 1992). The family currently attends Belconnen Baptist Church, Canberra.
By 1994 she was describing herself as 'a freelance writer with a special interest in women's health issues, bioethics and population programs' ('Contributors', Michael Cook [ed.]  The New Imperialism: World Population and the Cairo Conference [Little Hills Press], p.8). She was also presenting radio broadcasts for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation e.g. 'Bullets or Babies' (China for Women op. cit., p.350)
At about this time, Tankard Reist made three important moves as far as her future career was concerned. Reference has already been made to Spinifex Press which published China for Women and which later issued one of Tankard Reist's own books, Defiant Birth: Women Who Resist Medical Eugenics (2006). Spinifex Books is run by Susan Hawthorne and Renate Klein, the latter being one of the best-known and longest-established 'pro-life feminists' in Australia.
As will become apparent, Tankard Reist receives wide support for her anti-choice agenda from conservative Christian organisations which are also condemnatory of homosexuality. However, she herself rarely touches on this subject, unsurprisingly in view of her close ties with Spinifex which often publishes books by lesbians 'across fiction, non-fiction and poetry'. As Susan Hawthorne explains:
The media pigeonholes [Spinifex] because our publishing program includes lesbian books. They forget that lesbians play an important role in fostering social justice in Australia and internationally, and they forget that as lesbians we feel the impact of social injustice acutely ... (http://www.spinifexpress.com.au/thespin.htm)
Senator Brian Harradine, an ultra-conservative Tasmanian senator, hired Tankard Reist as his bioethics adviser in about 1993-94. Harradine retired in 2005 at which time Tankard Reist had been in his employ for 12 years. She may well have directly influenced a number of Harradine's more important political deals, including the imposition of a longstanding ban on importation of the RU 486 'abortion pill'.
Also around 1994, Tankard Reist became involved with the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute (SCBI), a Catholic-dominated organisation that produces a range of statistics and research papers, virtually all of them favourable to official Catholic positions. One of these is Tankard Reist's own 'RU 486 Trials - Controversy in Australia' (September 1994) which quotes Senator Harradine, Renate Klein and the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference as authorities in this area. Selena Ewing, one of Tankard Reist's co-directors at Women's Forum Australia, is a Research Officer at SCBI.
Wider organisational interest
By 2000, Tankard Reist had had three of her four children, so it's safe to say that she was heavily involved with family activities during the mid-to-late 1990s. However, her position with Sen. Harradine seems to have attracted the interest of a wide range of conservative Christian bodies and she was kept busy with requests for articles and appearances.
She spoke on 'Forced abortion in China and Australia's refugee policy' at the RTLA National Conference in July 1995 (Conference leaflet; Right to Life News, September 1995, p.6). The then recently-formed Baptist 'Salt Shakers' group, one of the more strident conservative Christian organisations, evidently realised that Tankard Reist herself was a Baptist and published a number of her articles. Probably the most important of these was her account of the Fourth UN International Women's Conference held in Beijing in 1995. Tankard Reist was sent to this convention by Radio Australia's Asia Focus program and her report is an indication of where she now stood in relation to what is often called 'the conservative Christian worldview'.
She began by quoting James Dobson of the major American conservative Christian group Focus on the Family. Dobson had predicted that the Beijing conference would represent 'the most radical, atheistic and anti-family crusade in the history of the world'. Tankard Reist demurred, but only mildly: damage had been done to 'the family, marriage and motherhood', but 'pro-family' groups had managed to minimise this harm. It was difficult to judge how Tankard Reist felt about the conference's 'sexual orientation' debate, but there was no doubt about her views regarding abortion:
The need to remove 'unsafe abortions' was stated. As pointed out by the pro-life delegates, abortion is never safe for babies and always carries risks for women ... Pro-life delegates' attempts to have the risks of abortion (including recent medical evidence of a link to breast cancer) included in the health section failed. (Salt Shakers Newsletter (SSN), November 1995, pp.12-15)
This reference to the entirely unproven abortion-breast cancer 'link' would have endeared her to Babette Francis and her overtly anti-feminist Endeavour Forum (EF). Francis has been promoting this idea for many years and it therefore came as no surprise when Tankard Reist was invited to speak at EF's July 1997 public meeting. Rarely does Francis invite self-styled 'feminists' to address her meetings and even more rarely does promotional literature refer to Tankard Reist as 'Mrs'! (Endeavour Forum Inc. Newsletter, July 1997, pp.1 & 12)
In follow-up pieces for Salt Shakers, Tankard Reist hammered the 'morning-after pill' - 'an abortion-by- stealth method under the guise of contraception' (SSN, October 1996, p.16); and promoted a 'natural family planning' device called the 'Home Ovulation Monitor', thereby aligning herself with a certain class of Baptist fundamentalists who regard all artificial contraception with grave suspicion (Bill Muehlenberg, a fellow Baptist, formerly with the Australian Family Association and one of the founders of Salt Shakers, shares these views). ('The Ovarian Monitor: A New Option for Couples', SSN, August 1997, p.17)
The National Civic Council also liked Tankard Reist's ideas, publishing her attack on President Bill Clinton's abortion policies in its News Weekly magazine of 14 December 1996. Even Rev. Fred Nile's Family World News got into the act, promoting her views on Chinese single-child policies (July 1997, p.12).
Giving Sorrow Words
Around 1997, Tankard Reist began collecting material for a book about women's reactions to abortion. In
its list of scheduled speakers for the 1997 conference, Right to Life Australia noted that Tankard Reist (now described as a 'Canberra writer and social commentator') was 'currently compiling a book about pressures on women to abort'. (Right to Life News Conference Edition, April-June 1997, p.3)
We should recognise that Tankard Reist had no interest whatever in the stories of women whose responses to their abortions were either positive or broadly neutral. As Bill Muehlenberg, then National Research Coordinator of Focus on the Family Australia, explained it (under the heading 'A Mum's Perspective on Abortion'):
It is difficult to get a balanced and objective look at the issue of abortion in Australia. Mainstream media does a good job of covering up or ignoring the topic ... A concerned mother of three is currently writing a book on abortion regret. She is collecting stories from women who have had abortions, telling of their pain, loss and regret following the abortion. (Focus on the Family Newsletter, February 1998, p.9)
Salt Shakers expanded on Tankard Reist's objectives:
[She] is seeking women to contribute first-hand accounts of pain, loss and regret following pregnancy termination for a book tentatively titled 'Voices of Regret: the untold story of abortion in Australia'. She is especially interested in cases of coercion by the medical profession, family planning and abortion clinic staff, along with stories of coercion and pressure by families and friends. (SSN, February 1998 'News and Update', p.4)
When in 2000 Tankard Reist published her book (ultimately called Giving Sorrow Words: Women's Stories of Grief after Abortion), she explained that it had been based on the contributions of:
... [t]wo hundred and fifty women [who] responded to small advertisements in women's magazines, letters to the editor in newspapers, and other notices in various places. (p.3)
Two points need to be made here. Firstly, Tankard Reist failed to make it clear that her project had been advertised extensively in the conservative Christian media, including the publications of the Right to Life Association, Focus on the Family and Salt Shakers. One of her 'letters to the editor' also appeared in the (then) evangelical Christian weekly New Life (3 September 1998). If she was trying identify rich sources of women likely to be guilt-ridden and/or resentful about their terminations, she could hardly have done a better job.
Secondly, although we don't know exactly how many women have abortions in Australia, estimates range between about 60,000 and 100,000 per year. This would have given Tankard Reist a huge pool of potential contributors, probably a couple of million or more. In her letters to the editor, she guaranteed these women anonymity or pseudonymity if they desired it.
In the circumstances, and even taking into account that only part of the female population would have seen her advertisements, it seems astounding that only 250 women contacted her. This represents a minuscule proportion of women who have experienced abortions and tends to undermine Tankard Reist's assumptions about the 'disastrous' effects of the procedure.
Further, some of the 18 stories that she recounts in detail seem to be the work of very depressed women, the source of whose problems may or may not be their abortion experience. As Leslie Cannold has observed:
... What becomes clear as one turns page after page of what even Tankard Reist admits makes bleak reading is that what women find so painful are problematic pregnancies, not problematic abortions. ('An interminable debate', Age, 8 April 2000)
More disturbing than the contributors' stories themselves, in some ways, are the concluding pages of Tankard Reist's book. She hunts and pecks through feminist literature for sentences and paragraphs that might be read as supporting her position; and pushes the discredited idea of an 'abortion-breast cancer link' as far as she dares (pp.238ff). Her 'Where to Find Help' page (p.261) directs readers to anti-choice counselling centres such as the Australian Federation of Pregnancy Support Services in the ACT and Open Doors Counselling and Education Services (formerly Pregnancy Action Centre) in Ringwood, Vic. Her recommended reading list (pp.262ff) includes books by American evangelical leaders like Jack Hayford and a string of titles such as And Still They Weep, The Mourning After and Will I Cry Tomorrow?
In the year of her book's publication, Tankard Reist was again asked to speak at the annual RTLA Conference on the topic 'Post-abortion trauma: refuting the critics'. ('Right to Life Conference ... 2000', supplement to Right to Life News, July-August 2000, p.2)
While collecting the stories for her book, Tankard Reist was also busy setting up and helping run a home for mothers and babies in Canberra. Karinya House opened in 1997 and was actively supported by a range of conservative Christian organisations. The ACT RTLA Newsletter of January-March 2004 reported that Right to Life had recently donated $10,000 to Karinya House in recognition of 'their special and important pro-life work'. The 'pro-life' aspect involved emergency assistance to women in 'crisis pregnancies', thus avoiding the option of abortion which many of these women might otherwise have taken.
The Karinya House Annual Report of 2003-4 lists patrons including Archbishop Francis Carroll and Bishop Patrick Power (Catholic) and Bishop George Browning (Anglican). The Management Committee included Tankard Reist as President, Lynne Pezzullo as Vice-President (Pezzullo is now a co-director of Women's Forum Australia with Tankard Reist) and members such as former Harradine staffers Catherine Cooney and Roslyn Seselja. (Senate Hansard, 21 June 2005)
When Catherine Cooney took over the Karinya House presidency from Tankard Reist early in 2005, she had this to say about her predecessor:
[Melinda] led [this] organisation from a 'one phone, one desk' operation to the professional welfare organisation ... that Karinya is today. Melinda has accepted a position as head of a new national women's organisation and resigned [from Karinya] with sadness ... (Cooney, 'From our Committee', Karinya News, Autumn 2005)
The 'national women's organisation' referred to here is clearly Women's Forum Australia.
Deeper involvement with Christian conservatives
As a Harradine staffer for 12 years, it is not surprising that Tankard Reist developed closer links with a range of conservative Christian groups, particularly Catholic ones. Her name regularly appeared in publications connected with the National Civic Council (NCC) and its 'Australian Family Association' during this time. However, she tenaciously clings to her self-identification as a 'feminist', to the extent that some of her political allies probably regard her as slightly eccentric.
Early in 2000 she was invited to address the NCC's 'Thomas More Centre', essentially a conservative Catholic youth training organisation. Tankard Reist spoke about 'the grief experienced by a high percentage of women who have undergone an abortion'. ('Impressive gathering of young people attend TMC', AD2000, April 2000, p.7) In June 2003, she spoke about the subject matter of Giving Sorrow Words at Opus Dei's Creston College in Sydney. Opus Dei is a Catholic order with exceedingly 'traditional' social views. Medical ethicist Leslie Cannold has noted that:
Well-known anti-choice activists and several women with links to Opus Dei recently became directors of Women's Forum Australia. ('It really does matter who you are, and where you come from', Age, 14 November 2006)
In August 2003, Tankard Reist was a scheduled speaker at the (Baptist/Pentecostal) Australian Christian
Lobby's Queensland Family Conference ('The Law, the Church, the State' leaflet); while in October 2004, she was sharing a platform with the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute's Greg Pike at a 'Lutherans for Life' convention in Murray Bridge, SA.
In August 2005, Tankard Reist spoke at the 'Sexual Integrity Forum' organised by Warwick Marsh's Fatherhood Foundation, a conservative Christian 'fathers' rights' organisation which is often characterised as anti-feminist. Appearing with Tankard Reist were well-known members of political/religious pressure groups such as Festival of Light Australia (Richard Egan) and the Australian Federation for the Family (Jack Sonnemann). Shortly afterwards, Tankard Reist was interviewed on Vatican Radio about the abortion issue.
A note on Tankard Reist's 'feminism'
Just because it is anti-choice doesn't mean Melinda let the Festival of Light Australia (FOLA) implicitly criticise then Opposition Leader Mark Latham's wife for retaining her original surname:
"I've just read your editorial on Mark Latham with its mention of his wife Janine Lacy in February  'Light' [magazine]. I am wondering whether you meant to imply that retaining a maiden surname and completing a degree at the same time as having children means one is not an enthusiastic mother. Retaining a maiden name and studying is hardly a benchmark for determining an enthusiasm, or lack of it, for mothering. I hope this inference was unintentional." (Letter to Light, May 2004, p.4)
Recognising Tankard Reist's value to their cause, the Festival of Light editors instantly disclaimed any such implication despite its being the only sensible interpretation of their original statement. They then tried to make amends by running a supportive article about Tankard Reist in their November issue. ('Abortion - now open for debate', p.7)
Tankard Reist has more directly defended her claim to be a feminist on several occasions, defining her position most precisely in a Melbourne Herald Sun article appearing on 14 March 2002:
"I would love to have been part of last week's celebration of International Women's Day. Like many other women, I approve of the organisers' demands - improved work conditions, an end to sexual abuse and harassment and lifting the status of downtrodden women around the world. But it is the blind celebration of abortion as a woman's best friend which stops me participating."
She goes on to insist that 'significant recent research on the links between abortion and suicide, depression and breast cancer continue to be kept from women' and concludes:
"Of course a baby is for life but so is abortion. And you won't hear that on International Women's Day." ('In Too Much Pain To Celebrate', reprinted in Salt Shakers Journal, May 2002, pp.7-8)
Tankard Reist is also strongly opposed to pornography and seems largely unfamiliar with the feminist debate over this issue. Her critique of pornography is an amalgam of conservative Christian philosophy and the work of feminists like Catharine MacKinnon (whom Tankard Reist quotes rather extensively in Giving Sorrow Words e.g. pp.249, 284). Tankard Reist summarises her own thoughts as follows:
Portraying women as nothing but sexual fodder for male lust and pleasure is a form of oppression of women everywhere. It puts women at risk of unwanted sexual advances and abuse ... There are strong connections between pornography, trafficking in women and sexual violence against women. ('Treatment sullies diggers', Brisbane Courier Mail, 20 September, 2006)
When faced with issues posing genuine dilemmas for feminists (and the rest of society), but where the outcome is the birth of a living child as in the case of surrogacy arrangements, Tankard Reist is most uncomfortable:
How do you critique Australia's latest surrogacy case without looking heartless? The ALP senator Stephen Conroy and his wife, Paula Benson, are the happy parents of Isabella ... Of course, no one begrudges her birth.
Tankard Reist spends most of the rest of her article begrudging it:
... [F]ragmentation of motherhood ... [G]enealogical bewilderment ... [D]isposable uteruses ... [C]ommodification of a child ... ('Motherhood deals risk deeper anguish', Sydney Morning Herald, 8 November 2006)
She concludes by claiming that '[o]f course we want Conroy and his family to thrive' but this rings rather hollow after the preceding diatribe. Still, if after several decades the Catholic Church hasn't worked out a convincing way of dealing with surrogacy, it might be too much to expect of an individual Baptist.
The birth of Women's Forum Australia
The WFA grew out of a December 2004 women's forum on the abortion issue held at the Sheraton on the Park in Sydney. Speakers included Andrea Mason of the Pentecostal-based Family First Party, Tankard Reist and Selena Ewing of the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute, now a WFA director. (Australian Christian Lobby Newsletter, December 2004, p.2; Right to Life Association (NSW))
Tankard Reist gave a characteristically no-holds-barred speech entitled 'It is Broke, Fix It':
That's what we're wanting to do here tonight, and that is to raise the public consciousness about what abortion does to women ... [A]bortion is an uncontrolled and unregulated experiment on women: abortion is violence against women ...
Within a few weeks, women connected with this meeting were talking about the formation of a permanent organisation, with Tankard Reist doing a lot of the leg-work. Early in 2005 she spoke to a meeting of religious leaders (including Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists) who evidently encouraged her to pursue a strong line on the issue. (Miranda Devine 'Abortion debate takes on a new life of its own', Sydney Morning Herald, 3 February 2005) Later in February, writers such as Selena Ewing began using the WFA title in their articles ('The insidious censorship of pro-life women', Age, 16 February 2005). The WFA website places Tankard Reist at the top of its list of 'directors', although she does not appear to claim primacy within the organisation, her Karinya House 'farewell' notwithstanding (Karinya News op. cit.).
In 2006, Tankard Reist published her second book, Defiant Birth: Women Who Resist Medical Eugenics:
'Defiant Birth' tells the courageous stories of women who continued their pregnancies despite intense pressure from doctors, family members and social expectations ... Melinda Tankard Reist dares to expose how eugenics is practised today ... (Back cover)
This book was widely promoted, with Tankard Reist scheduled to attend launches in Rome, London, Washington DC and New York, among other places (). She claims to have addressed the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and may have done so during this tour.
In January 2007, Tankard Reist spoke at a 'dominionist' Summit Ministries conference in Canberra.
Still a comparatively young woman, Tankard Reist has developed one of the best conservative Christian networks in Australia and finds herself at home in both Catholic and evangelical Protestant circles. Her aggressive independence defies easy categorisation and has even opened doors into one wing of the feminist movement. Through her work with Brian Harradine, she has substantial experience in the federal parliamentary milieu and now seems to be building an international audience.