Sexing up Abortion


Most Australian politicians don’t want to talk about abortion. The press doesn’t share their reluctance to raise the issue. With two in three pregnancies unplanned, and roughly one third of Australian women having an abortion in their lifetime, journalists know most of their readers have been touched, either directly or indirectly, by the issue. But as with most longstanding issues, the media demand new ‘approaches’, ‘developments’ or ‘angles’ in exchange for coverage. In short, they insist abortion be ‘sexed up’.

Enter Julia Black and her documentary My Foetus, screened on ABC TV early last month. For those looking for a new ‘take’ on abortion, Black’s film had it all. Not only did the film promise never-before-seen footage of a first trimester abortion, but a range of other bloody-foetus-on-a-slab vision: all from a filmmaker claiming to be pro-choice and with impeccable pro-choice credentials (Julia is the daughter of Tim Black, the founder of Marie Stopes International). Here was something new. The media was hooked.

But make no mistake about it, My Foetus was a profoundly anti-choice film. From Black’s assertion that morality and legal legitimacy of abortion should be discerned from physical ‘facts’ about the foetus, to her obsession with foetuses but complete disinterest in the lives, bodies and decisions of pregnant women and their partners, Black swallowed the anti-choice ‘looks like a baby, is a baby’ line whole.

The media ran hard with the story. Over 30 news and comment pieces appeared in the Australian press in the weeks leading up to screening. Yet ultimately the film disappointed. Compass‘s ratings dropped on the night, and anecdotal evidence suggests it caused barely a ripple in the community. The ABC put on extra staff for the night, but only got four calls – nearly all from journalists wanting to know if there’d been any calls. A national support line reported no increase in enquiries in the following days and weeks.

Despite this, My Foetus gave oxygen to the most recent anti-choice spin on the abortion issue: The Woman Hurt by Abortion. At the heart of Black’s story is the claim that abortion is wrong not because it kills foetuses, but because it hurts women. In the face of reliable research showing that the vast majority of women suffer no long term psychological difficulties after abortion, that 98 per cent have no regrets and that for most women the dominant post-abortion emotion is relief, the anti-choice movement strives to have the Woman Hurt by Abortion’s story seen as the norm.

Indeed, a key task for those who’ve embraced what the anti-choice movement laughably calls their new ‘pro-woman’ strategy, is to replace the foetus with the guilt-ridden, self-hating, grief-stricken, victimised and finger-pointing Woman Hurt by Abortion as the defining image of all that is wrong with legal termination. As one key American strategist argues in an anti-choice ‘how-to’ handbook published on the internet, the hope is that focusing attention on these women’s unhappy stories will undermine public confidence that legal abortion is really safe for women:

Even though [the public]is uncomfortable with the fact that unborn children are being killed, they tolerate abortion because they believe the lie that ‘at least women are being helped’. But once this lie is exposed, the middle majority’s thoughts will dramatically change.

The handbook also states:

‘Pro-abortionists [sic]will attempt to criticize our pro-woman strategy as merely a smear campaign intended to frighten women away from ‘necessary’ abortion. We must not lend credence to this assertion by making the claim that our goal is to shut down the abortion industry. Instead, we must always emphasize that our goal is simply to help and protect women.’

A key player in the abortion debate in Australia is Melinda Tankard Reist. The media frenzy surrounding My Foetus allowed Tankard Reist to run the ‘Hurt by Abortion’ line in several Australian newspapers, which also obliged by recycling more of the stories of unhappy and regretful women she interviewed for her book Giving Sorrow Words.

In the middle of all this, one Woman Just Fine After Abortion decided she’d had enough of all the teeth-gnashing and stood up to be counted. She was Cindi Tebbel, a women’s magazine editor sacked several years ago for putting a larger-sized model on the cover. Tebbel went public with her tale of contraceptive failure and abortion at age 18. ‘I took a pragmatic approach to a very difficult problem’, wrote Tebbel, ‘and came out psychologically intact.’

Tebbel’s willingness to stand up and be counted is a welcome intervention in the seemingly unending battle to secure women’s reproductive freedom. Where she has cleared the way, others will certainly follow. Of course many would probably prefer to keep their stories private. But like Tebbel, they are wise enough to know that if future generations are to enjoy control over their bodies and lives, such counterspin is vitally necessary.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.