Abortion never really used to be a ‘thing’. Then the Catholic Church came along. Bonnie Mary Liston explores the history, particularly in Tasmania, where it’s legal, but not practiced.
You may have seen protests about abortion in the news lately – both for and against. Tasmania has no currently active surgical abortion clinics and some people believe there should be even less. It can be a bit confusing. What does that mean? Is abortion legal or not? Why is everybody so upset all the time?
Abortion is a fractious topic at the best of times. It’s something that people hold very strong opinions on but also something people are very rarely fully educated about. When discussing abortion it is important not only to understand our current circumstances but also the broader context behind how and why those circumstances came to be.
So, to understand properly the situation of abortion in Tasmania let us first go back several thousand years.
The history of abortion is nearly as old as humanity itself. Since those early cave people discovered that sex was both quite pleasurable and liable to produce the squalling, messy, consequences known as children, we as a species have been continuously attempting to engage in the former without the expense of the latter.
Back in Ancient Greece, the colony of Cyrene maintained a lucrative trade in the exportation of the native silphium plant which was believed to be a powerful abortifactant. What medical properties the plant actually contained are unknowable to us – it was in such continuous high demand that it was harvested to extinction.
Throughout the Middle Ages, midwives were known to sell tonics and potions that would ensure you would have no need of their midwiving services in the upcoming months. Some scholars have spotted the recipe of one such potion in the list of flowers that Ophelia recites during her breakdown in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Quoth the bard: “women’s bodies, women’s choices”).
In pre-colonial Aboriginal Australia there is evidence of traditions of consuming plants such as cymbidium madidum, petalostigma pubescens, and eucalyptus gamophylla or even smoking out the vagina with Erythropleum chlorostachyum to prevent or end pregnancies.
You can find similar examples of abortive techniques being used in almost every culture, in almost any location, along the long bent of history, though you’ll have to search for it. It’s women’s history you see: not always reliably written down.
I do not mean to present the past as a secret haven for women’s reproductive rights. Old timey abortifacients were often dangerous, sometimes deadly, and not even particularly effective. Unfortunately, the history of medical science has a broad overlap with the history of witchcraft, and also the history of extreme human foolishness. Despite this, women have consistently throughout history sought out different techniques, strategies, herbs and recipes to prevent childbirth.
It is very interesting to note that many of these women did not consider what they were doing as “abortion”, even though within our modern context that is exactly what it was. The life of a foetus was considered by many to not begin until after the Quickening – the first time you felt the child move inside you. Any action taken before this period- which includes the entire first trimester, in which the vast majority of elective abortions occur– was not abortion.
It was, amongst other euphemisms “menses protection”. You know, protecting your menses from anything that might stop it from coming every month, like a pregnancy.
Even devout Christian women, or other demographics traditionally associated with ‘pro-life’ movements today, would have taken these concoctions without guilt or repentance. Abortifacients were on par with laxatives or emetics – kind of gross medicines you took for personal problems.
You wouldn’t necessarily tell people about it over your ale or mutton, or what have you, but neither would you hide your actions or face societal or legal judgement as a result.
Indeed, under English law abortion was not illegal until 1803, and even after that it was rarely enforced as a criminal case in the instance of prior to the Quickening use of “menstrual stimulators.”
The idea that ‘life begins at conception’ did not really exist in the mainstream until the 1830s when science made such discoveries as the human fertilisation process and the existence of the ovum (apparently uncharted until 1827).
The Catholic Church, who disliked scientific progress almost as much as they disliked women, didn’t even pick up the idea and start preaching a strict ‘no abortion ever’ policy until 1869. Unfortunately, where the Catholic Church went the norms of Western society were bound to follow, leading to a run-on of new laws, criminalising abortifacients of all kinds.
As Stassa Edwards put it, “by the twentieth century, women had almost completely lost a kind of reproductive freedom that they had enjoyed since at least the dawn of the Roman Empire.”
Of course, such laws did nothing to stop the practice of abortion, merely drove it underground, making it more difficult and dangerous for women in the most vulnerable of positions – let’s not forget for a lot of history, childbirth was about as likely to kill you as drinking unregulated back-alley potions.
I have taken us on this adult-themed magical-school-bus-ride across history to illustrate some simple points. Abortion is not an age-old sacrilegious taboo, nor a new-fangled invention of those troublesome feminists; a product of loose modern morals and too much science.
It is a simple, consistent facet of human existence. Women, and other uterus owners, from the beginning of recorded time have sought to end their pregnancies for any number of legitimate reasons be it they were unsupported, had not the resources to care for a child, were in physical danger, or just as pertinently, did not want to be pregnant.
Long term, humanity has understood and made space for this truth. And there has never been, nor is there today – even with scientists, even with priests – any definite or universal understanding of when or how consciousness occurs in a foetus.
Now back to Tasmania.
The Apple Isle and abortion
As a colony, Australia’s stance on abortion was dictated by British Imperial law, chiefly the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act which stated that abortion was illegal under any circumstances. Post-Federation, abortion has been regulated on a state level and each individual state holds its own positions on the matter, which have evolved over time.
By 2019, following roughly a century’s worth of protests, legal cases, and changing legislation, abortion is broadly legal in every Australian state (except New South Wales, kind of. It’s complex and they’re not the state we’re exploring at the moment). Each state has unique complexities in their policies to confuse and annoy people, generally relating to how many weeks limit the abortion window and how many doctors have to sign off on a woman’s decision before it is considered legally valid.
The landmark case in Australian abortion law, our own equivalent to Roe v Wade, is the 1969 Menhennitt Ruling from the Victorian Supreme Court case R v Davidson. The Menhennitt Ruling stated that abortion was lawfully justified if “necessary to preserve the physical or mental health of the woman concerned, provided that the danger involved in the abortion did not outweigh the danger which the abortion was designed to prevent”.
I had never heard of the Menhennitt Ruling by name but I recognised it from my own life. As a young girl growing up in Queensland I remember being told by older girls what to do if I found myself in trouble (there’s always an older girl, always a whisper network, always a chain of wisdom). What you do is, you go to a doctor (“only the right doctor, don’t worry I know a woman”) and you say, exactly “this pregnancy presents a severe risk to my mental health and if don’t get an abortion I will kill myself.”
You don’t even have to sell it, merely saying the words allows them to tick off a checklist and proceed legally. Another piece of women’s history, uncodified rituals running just beneath the surface of society.
From 1925 until 2001 “unlawful abortion” was prohibited in Tasmania under the Criminal Code. A fun fact is that there was actually no legal definition as to what constituted a lawful or unlawful abortion within Tasmania law. Apparently, though no one was ever actually prosecuted, it was generally considered to hold to the precedent of the Menhennitt ruling.
In 2001 Tasmania finally appended the Criminal Code to give criteria for lawful abortion, largely cribbed from the policies of South Australia.
Abortion was decriminalised in Tasmania in 2013. Abortion is now legal for up to 16 weeks (which is the second smallest window in Australia just behind the Northern Territory at 14 weeks). Post 16-weeks abortion is legal provided the approval of two doctors is attained.
This should be the happy ending of the article, but unfortunately legal is not the same as accessible, and things get a little complex from here.
At the end of 2017 the last surgical abortion clinic in Tasmania shut down. This meant that women seeking an abortion after nine weeks, have to travel to the mainland to access their legal right to safe, professional abortions.
This has made abortion not only logistically challenging to procure (finding an interstate clinic, getting an appointment, taking time off work, booking flights, finding a place to stay, leaving your support network behind, deciding whether or not to lie to people about your fun holiday in Melbourne), but it also made it quite expensive.
Even before nine weeks, women seeking abortion in Tasmania must find and pay for an ultrasound to prove that they are in fact under nine weeks, before they can access in-state abortion options. Not only that, but there are only three practicing doctors in Tasmania both willing and qualified to prescribe abortion medication.
These barriers make it increasingly difficult for women to access abortion in Tasmania, particularly young women, women of low-socioeconomic status, and women in rural areas.
Research has shown time and time again that places where abortion is difficult to access leads not to less abortion, but to higher maternal mortality and unsafe abortion rates.
Interestingly, abortion is entirely possible in Tasmania in practical terms. It can be performed in any hospital, but currently only under special circumstances such as medical emergency. It is not a lack of those with the ability to provide abortion that limit Tasmanian women, but the policies of the government which restrict their access to it within the public health system, marooning them to expensive private health procedures or interstate travel.
This state of affairs was loudly criticised by many people, including Australian Greens leader Richard Di Natale who said:
“People are absolutely appalled that in one of our states women are not getting access to safe terminations, and what I know is that in any decent society we ensure that all women have access to those choices and right now people in Tasmania are being deprived of that.”
The Tasmanian Government, under pressure, promised to provide a new low-cost surgical termination provider within the state by October 2018. But October 2018 came and went with neither changes nor any publicly available information about the progress of their mission.
The Hodgeman Government was also criticised for, during this time period, choosing to allocate increased funding to Pro-Life groups, such as Pregnancy Counselling and Support Tasmania. Labor deputy leader Michelle O’Byrne said:
“To increase the funding of this organisation as a resolution to the fact that women already can’t access services appears utterly ludicrous and is clearly symptomatic of this Minister’s view on terminations.”
Australia has relatively low abortion rates in terms of the globe and our general opinion of abortion is quite high. Opinion polls show a majority of Australians support abortion rights, and support has been steadily increasing since the 1980s. However, like many issues in Australian society, our politicians have a tendency to lag far behind the general population in terms of enacting widely accepted progressive social reform.
In 2017, South Australian Senator Cory Bernardi moved a motion to ban abortion “on gender grounds” supported by Tasmanian Liberal Eric Abetz and notorious espouser of wise and fair politics, Pauline Hanson. The motion was voted down 10-36, but what this shows is that Australians’ ongoing right to legal abortion is not guaranteed.
Many brave people have had to fight to procure the rights we have in Australia for women (and other people with the biological ability to fall pregnant) to have dignity, autonomy, and control over their bodies and their lives. And many more may still have to fight in the future.
No matter how much some people dislike it the fact remains that abortion has always, and will always, exist in human society. Any debate about abortion can never truly be about the abstract concepts of legal abortion versus no abortion – it has to be acknowledged that the only possible outcomes are safe, available abortion versus desperate, unsafe abortion.
Stay educated. Pay attention, and no matter what you personally believe is right don’t let other people make your choices for you.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.