the politics of abortion
With an Australian federal election fast approaching, the political issues that seem to be dominating revolve around women’s rights, with misogyny, equal pay and abortion laws making headlines.
It’s not surprising considering the dominance of women’s issues in the US election. It became pretty clear that the issues that won the election for Barack Obama surrounded contraception, abortion and the protection of women’s rights.
Obama did have help from the Republican Party – it seemed like every other day there was a politician making uninformed comments about contraception, rape, abortion and women’s bodies. Todd Akin became a household name for all the wrong reasons. Anti-abortion groups jumped on board to cry that the acceptance and prevalence of abortion is out of control. That it is rampant and a stain on our nations. That abortion is a procedure that women now liken to a visit to the dentist or the nail salon. A decision made flippantly based on – I don’t know – the time of year and whether we really want to wear a bikini while pregnant. ‘Cause pregnancy is such a winter trend this year– duh!
It is true that abortion is a common procedure globally. It is one of the safest medical procedures available and one in three Australian women will have had one by the time they are 45. Australia’s abortion rate is reported to be 19.7 out of every 1000 live births. When we compare ourselves to Western Europe, where 11 out of every 1000 pregnancies are aborted, then yes, we have some room for improvement. But when we compare ourselves to the global average of 35, hysteria need not set in just yet.
Here come the little known but surprising facts. According to the Victorian government, research shows that at the time of an unplanned pregnancy 60% of women are using at least one form of contraception and one in five are using more than one method. In other words, more than half of these women are actively using a drug or practicing a method specifically to avoid having a baby. Unplanned pregnancy is therefore not just a result of carelessness or random sexual encounters. In fact, the World Health Organisation estimates that even if all couples globally used effective contraception 100% of the time, there would still be an estimated six million unplanned pregnancies per year.
Contraception failures aside, let us not forget that women don’t always choose to have sex. Coercion, manipulation, rape, cultural frameworks, abuse of drugs or alcohol can all deny a woman her right to act freely or use contraception. It is easy to say ‘abortion is wrong’, but clearly in most cases, as a result of multiple, diverse and interrelated reasons, abortion is right for the woman at that time. How do I know this? Simple – because women continue to have them. Anti-abortion groups stress how much of a big deal an unborn life is. We get it and that’s exactly the point – having a baby is a huge, life-altering experience. It’s a massive responsibility. So it’s kind of important to be able decide when it’s the right time to happen.
The three main reasons for abortion, as found through studies conducted worldwide by the Guttmacher Institute, are: negative impact on the mother’s life, financial instability, and relationship trouble/unwillingness to be a single mother. Some may see these as being “selfish” but keep in mind over half of all women who have an unplanned pregnancy are using contraception. Is it really selfish that a woman’s motives for committing to contraception in the first place– i.e. they don’t want a baby – don’t suddenly change after that contraception fails? Is it selfish to admit that you are not capable of providing for a child economically or mentally? Is it selfish to bring a child into an unstable and possibly volatile relationship? It’s actually the opposite; it’s being honest and compassionate and acknowledging your limits.
Those who oppose abortion with the argument of the “right to life” need to examine what that phrase really means. Arguing that a foetus has a right to life surely goes hand in hand with expecting that that life is of a high standard. A life where a child can grow in a secure and stable environment. A life where the vast responsibilities of raising a child can be managed. A life where food, clothing, shelter, healthcare and education are provided. A life in which the child feels loved and nurtured. These things don’t just suddenly appear because you have a baby; the means to provide these things need to pre-exist or that baby simply won’t get the quality of life we all have a “right” to.
And those who say women use abortion as a form of contraception, (i.e. just don’t bother using contraception because hey, you can always just get an abortion!), completely dismiss any emotional, moral or maternal depth women have. They forget what the possibility of having a baby means. It means sacrificing any one or combination of education/career/financial security/social life/travel opportunities /relationships/sleep/sense of freedom and more.
And pregnancy is not subtle. Can you imagine the trauma of friends, family, co-workers and strangers asking personal questions about a pregnancy that is not wanted? Trust me; women aren’t risking all of that because they can’t be bothered taking a pill or using condoms.
In the USA, contraception and abortion continue to be a huge focal point for various legislations, company practices, social attitudes and religious arguments. North Dakota has just this week passed a bill through the Senate that could effectively see abortion banned after 6 weeks of pregnancy and abortion in the case of foetal abnormality outlawed completely. American women continue to face an uncertain future in terms of accessing abortion, contraception and family planning services. We must ensure this kind of madness doesn’t ever occur in Australia.
In recent weeks however, Democratic Labor Party Senator John Madigan introduced a Private Members Bill in the Senate aimed at stopping Medicare rebates for pregnancies terminated based on gender. Mr Madigan supports the bill by saying he has ‘seen data that abortion on the basis of gender selection is happening overseas and that means it is likely to be happening here’, but does concede there is no actual evidence to support this claim. Currently abortion has the same Medicare code as miscarriage, making them indistinguishable. Even though Madigan’s Bill is likely to be defeated it is being seen as a shot across the bow on the issue. Madigan is likely to hold the balance of power after the next election so his Bill is making it clear that if either side of the political divide want his support, they will have to engage on what is currently a state issue. And Madigan isn’t alone in using his power in a weakened Government to raise the issue. Victorian State Government Minister Geoff Shaw, who has recently moved to the cross benches, has used his balance of power in a one seat majority government to try to force the Premier into rolling back Victoria’s abortion reform laws.
The point is that women who want an abortion will seek one out, no matter what the legal situation is. This has been proven time and time again in countries with conservative abortion laws – unsafe, illegal abortion rates in these countries are high and deaths related to “backyard” or dodgy abortions tragically mirror this. This only reiterates the desperation women feel when stripped of making choices over their own bodies.
Of course abortion should be legal, safe and as rare as possible. Being pro-choice does not mean advocating higher abortion rates. But living in a nation that offers this service so women are able to control their lives is certainly not tragic, nor is it something to be ashamed of.
We must remember that contraception is not failsafe. We must remember that women and growing babies can have severe health problems during pregnancy which put their lives at risk. Abortion is usually not the desired outcome in these cases, but it may be medically necessary and is often a heartbreaking decision for a woman. We must also remember that raising a child demands enormous emotional, financial and physical needs and not everyone is in a place to fulfil those all the time. Nor should they be ordered to. It is a notion of achieving a world where every birth is wanted to ensure every child is and feels wanted.
Abortion is here and it is here to stay. It’s time men stopped making legislation over what is a woman’s right; it’s time we stopped stigmatising women for accessing it; and it’s time to stop attaching religion to a legal, medical procedure.
Matylda Buczko studied Journalism, Literature and Creative Writing at RMIT and Monash University before undertaking a Master’s Degree in Media & Communications at Swinburne University. Currently, she is the Communications Coordinator at Marie Stopes International, a global not-for-profit organisation specialising in sexual and reproductive health. When Matylda isn’t writing about women’s reproductive rights, she enjoys eavesdropping in cafes, eating too much as a good excuse to laze on the couch and watching an awful lot of pirated film and TV until way past her bedtime.