Don't Mention the 'A' Word


The nine-month mark, after conceiving a pregnancy that did not come to term, can be an emotional time. I read this in the aftermath of an abortion when I was feeling confused and unsure: how was I to come to terms with a strange sense of loss?

I made the right decision. But I was overwhelmed for weeks because I could not express the sadness associated with an accidental pregnancy at a point of my life when I did not want to become a mother. I knew, instinctively at first and then through my reading, that any public expression of this kind risks being recruited to the anti-choice argument, which increasingly emphasises the adverse psychological effect of abortion on women. (A claim that runs contrary to a comprehensive 2001 Newcastle Institute of Public Health study that found ‘legal and voluntary termination of pregnancy rarely causes immediate or lasting negative psychological consequences in healthy women.’)

Life is complicated. Humans make mistakes. Difficult decisions have deep, complex and contradictory consequences. I was always utterly resolved in my sadness, which passed.

Now at the nine-month mark I find myself looking occasionally at very pregnant women and tiny babies, idly imagining. But as it turned out it isn’t prams and ready-to-burst bellies that act as emotional triggers; reading Senate Hansard online had me blinking back tears of rage.

No one warned me about the potentially adverse psychological effect of trawling through days of debate about the Therapeutic Goods Amendment (Repeal of Ministerial Responsibility for Approval of RU486) Bill 2005.

Ron Boswell, Barnaby Joyce, Bill Heffernan you know nothing of my life, my relationship, my financial circumstances, my values, or my dreams. How dare you?

Thanks to Bill Leak at The Australian

But the bigoted arrogance of anti-choice champions most of them male members of the Coalition is not surprising. Nor is Lyn Allison’s courage. She has distinguished herself throughout this process. My admiration goes out to her, as well as co-sponsors of the Bill, Liberal Judith Troeth, the Nationals’ Fiona Nash and Labor’s Claire Moore

Two aspects of the Bill’s easy passage through the Senate are more noteworthy.

The first is the shift towards women-centred arguments on the part of the anti-choice lobby. Speakers against the Bill devoted their time to selective sourcing of medical opinions, statistics and case studies, which distorted the risks associated with RU486. All made it known that they regarded RU486 as a ‘killer drug’ and that they believed human life began at conception, but insisted that they stood primarily to defend Australian women’s health.

Instead of righteous moral condemnation for women who might chose to terminate an unwanted pregnancy through non-surgical means, these Senators were excessively worried about them.

ALP Senator Helen Polley, one of only three women to vote against the Bill, put the case most graphically, arguing that RU486 exposed women to new psychological as well as physical risks from which she felt compelled to protect them. She stated: ‘You may be thinking that I am taking the moral high ground and that I am making judgments about pro-abortion or pro-choice. However, I am focused on the health of Australian women.’ After quoting the Catholic Women’s League of Tasmania on the particular ‘trauma’ associated with RU486-induced abortion, Polley reiterated, ‘My main concern is the health of women. Let us make decisions that are in the best interests of the health of Australian women.’

This tactical shift of emphasis is exemplified in the newspaper ad placed by ‘Australians Against RU486’ featuring a young, blonde professional-looking woman. Women as martyrs have replaced the foetuses associated with anti-choice imagery of the past.

And while anti-choice Senators stood to defend women, Bill proponents all began by insisting this was not a debate about abortion, but about process. (As well as demonstrating that the health risks had been grossly inflated by opponents; RU486 is approved for use in 35 countries and, in any case, the Bill only facilitates a full professional assessment of the drug by the TGA.) Speakers in favour of the Bill sought to shift their contribution away from women’s health and choices and towards good governance and consistency.

The reticence of Senators who spoke in favour of the Bill to acknowledge that this was a debate about maximising Australian women’s reproductive health choices is disappointing. This brave Bill is about access to abortion services. Instead, proponents all reminded the Senate that the abortion question was settled well before I was even born. Abortion on demand is legal in all Australian States and Territories (very few mentioned that it’s still on the criminal code in most of them).

Inevitably, if reluctantly, Senators put forward the arguments that they felt had sealed the debate in the 1970s. Allison reminded us: ‘Laws and regulations do not change women’s determination to terminate an unwanted pregnancy They just affect the safety and quality of the experience.’ And in a focussed contribution, West Australian Liberal Party Senator and midwife Judith Adams spoke at length about the issue of access for women in remote areas, some of whom are thousands of kilometres from abortion clinics: the Rural Doctors Association strongly supports this Bill.

But overall, the attempt was to sideline discussion about abortion.

The inquiry into this Bill inspired a massive, orchestrated response from anti-choice groups: they are an organised, well-financed, committed grassroots movement. They are also fanatics, and profoundly unrepresentative of general opinion. Unfortunately, their presence in Australian public life means that pro-choice passions cannot afford to be too ‘settled.’

After the Bill’s passing Greens Senator Kerry Nettle said that this was a ‘victory for logic.’ GetUp!, whose petition I signed, emailed me: ‘thanks for being a part of our campaign to get politics out of medicine.’

Maximising Australian women’s access to abortion is an issue worth fighting for, proudly. But ‘Politics out of medicine’ is an uninspiring rallying call. And who’s going to get up, sign up and stand up for ‘logic’?

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