Let's Not Shy Away From The Living Body


Less than a week ago, images of a first trimester abortion were posted anonymously online at thisismyabortion.com. The photos and the photographer’s abortion story were published as a comment piece in The Guardian.  As abortion services in many countries face increasing threat, the graphic propaganda photos of anti-abortion campaigners continue to dominate the entrances to clinics that perform terminations. Many women are responding to the increasingly sensationalised portrayal of abortion with their own personal stories of safe, non-traumatising experiences of terminating a pregnancy. Why have these much less sensational pictures grabbed so much attention? What can this latest act of self-proclaimed civil disobedience tell us about the nature of abortion?

On the days I work as a therapist, I get off the train near a great sporting landmark and make my way down the street past a sexual health clinic that performs abortions. Each morning there are a small group of grey men and women praying and holding plastic models of foetuses that look as if they’ve been stolen from my grade nine biology class circa 1980.

Sometimes I simply pass by. Occasionally I’ve asked them what they think they might be achieving. Once I told a man I thought Jesus would be ashamed of him. Because whatever views you have on Jesus, or about abortion for that matter, it would be pretty hard to argue that he would have spent his time on earth protesting outside an abortion clinic. This is definitely Old Testament behaviour.

Until recently, the pro-life movement held a monopoly on the imagery of abortion. The plastic foetuses, ultrasound prints, pictures of dismembered foetal corpses and photos of tiny feet have been their domain. Pro-choice campaigners have preferred to focus on the experiences and the context of women facing unwanted pregnancies. The anonymous author of thisismyabortion.com understandably wanted to respond to the barrage of this imagery with some more realistic pictures of early abortion.

One of the reasons that this imagery so compels us is that we believe in the truth of the picture. We still believe that pictures don’t lie. So we look at these new photos with their simple wide beakers half filled with blood, devoid of any horror movie or anti-choice inspired material, and they are a soothing counterbalance to the more common abortion propaganda. The author, like so many contemporary feminists writing about abortion, is making the point that abortion is not a terrible, gory or shameful experience. That for some women it is straightforward and guilt-free. That of course for many of us, abortion is not a big deal.

But the body is also not a static object, it’s more a collective of processes in motion. Women’s experiences of unwanted pregnancy are many and varied, and we can’t contain our experiences in pictures, they change in context as the years go by.

In 1995, Naomi Wolf published "Our Bodies Our Souls", a call to the pro-choice movement to abandon the polarity of debate — particularly around the concept of the foetus.

She asked pro-choice activists to take a moral and ethical stand on abortion, not simply abortion rights, and to accept that abortion is necessary but undesirable. She asked us not to take the reality of a foetus’ existence so casually. Of course this article landed like a bomb.

For my part, the article was published in the year my daughter was born. At the time, I felt a surge of gratitude and renewed relief for my two previous abortions years before. It was so hard being a mother now, I reasoned, how could I possibly have done it before? But this is of course only my experience. For other women, the aftermath is different or it changes over time. I need to accept that it may change for me too, and that pictures of innocent-looking blood will not protect me from future regret.

It’s much easier to resort to polemics about this issue at a time when in so many countries access to safe and affordable abortion is threatened or non-existent. To face the complexities of abortion is much more difficult than taking a unilateral stand.

But while access to abortion is indeed a moral and ethical issue, perhaps the act of abortion itself is not. Maybe the act has nothing whatsoever to do with civilised society, as so many on both sides of the abortion debate argue. Perhaps it is a simple and animal act, common among many species, sometimes necessary, sometimes regrettable, but always involving blood and a fairly brutal decision about survival.

As we survey these new photos of an ancient and ongoing experience for women, I think it’s important to understand that we are also animals. Our experiences of our bodily processes are sometimes graphic — as all bodily processes have the potential to be. In a society where so many of us are protected from the realities of the body, where menstrual blood is blue, birth happens under a sheet and only adorable puppies use toilet paper, we will be endlessly fascinated by real images.

As we try to normalise abortion and to support women to make well-informed reproductive choices, let’s not shy away from the living body. We are all flesh and blood. Even Jesus knew that. We don’t need to sanitise abortion to see access to it as a basic human right.

ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.  

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.