Discussions around abortion access often rest on this concept of choice, freedom and autonomy for women, concepts that the majority of people would support. It is these ideals which underpinned much of the political debate around the recent Infant Viability Bill in Victoria. Yet in spite of the substantial evidence that abortion is rarely an expression of any of these ideals, the majority of our media, politicians, the professional sector and the general public have become so sensitised to the issue that the ideology is blinding them to the facts.
While the Bill directly dealt with late term abortions, it is worth understanding what drives women even in early pregnancy and the coercive factors that exist. More than 95% of all abortions in Australia are undertaken for psychosocial reasons. A study of women attending the Pregnancy Advisory Service at the Royal Women’s Hospital in Victoria in 2009 reveals the range of reasons women sought abortion.
Some of the recorded reasons include not wanting children, not having enough money, not feeling supported, being too young or too old, having relationship problems, feeling isolated and unable to cope and cultural reasons.
While current ideology would have us not question any reason women give, we only have to scratch the surface of some of these to reveal the inherent lack of choice that actually exists.
- 23 women in this study felt alone, isolated and unable to cope.
- 145 women were experiencing relationship problems or violent partners
- 189 had financial reasons
- 11 women expressed cultural reasons defined as needing an abortion because they had broken their cultural norm by having sex outside of marriage
- 263 women already had a young baby (from this we could infer an inability to manage/cope)
I have randomly chosen just a few of what are considered to be very small percentages of the overall number of women seeking abortion. It is these low percentages that are often used to deny the significance of the women. For example, the 11 women who sought abortion because they were afraid of the stigma and consequence of having sex outside of marriage constituted only 0.4%. Easily discounted isn’t it if we don’t think about the 11 women and what this ‘choice’ means to them.
I have heard abortion advocates argue vehemently FOR abortion for these kinds of cases or for the 6.3% of women who didn’t have enough money. After all, what else could these women do? We can’t let them stay pregnant and experience stigma or violence at the hands of their families. We can’t let them live in poverty with an extra mouth to feed that they can’t afford. Of course they must have abortion, or they will suffer. They will suffer like the 0.8% of women who feel alone, isolated and unable to cope.
Do we have to care about the 11 women or the 23 women or the 189 women when we know they are only tiny percentages?
Do we seriously consider that these women are expressing their autonomy, or making a freedom based ‘choice’?
Then there are the women who experience direct pressure and coercion, even in the setting of abortion clinics. In 2015, three such women contacted our service having attended an abortion provider for medical abortion. All three expressed either ambivalence “I’m not sure” or outright rejection of the drugs, “I don’t want to swallow it’. All three took mifepristone, the first drug in medical abortion, in the presence of a doctor who completely disregarded their words, feelings, and expressed lack of consent with words including, ‘take the pill or get out’, and ‘you can't go having children that were never wanted and won't be loved'. Another woman stated ‘I’m not a professional and even I could see half those crying girls didn’t want to be there’. All three contacted us in the space of 30mins to 2 hours after leaving the clinic, desperate for a way to stop the process they had begun.
Yet instead of expressing concern for these women, or outrage at the misconduct of these doctors, one prominent abortion advocate in Australia stated that this situation never happens and these women don’t exist.
We know that pregnant and parenting women still face discrimination in the workplace, with documented cases of women being told to have abortions or lose their jobs. Few people with common sense would consider having an abortion because you are worried about losing your job, or not getting a promotion or not being able to effectively balance inflexible work practises with parenthood as an expression of freedom. Yet we will still hear that abortion should be available so that women can move forward professionally or complete their educations.
Women who seek late term abortions also cite psychosocial reasons at around 50%. Yet even in the recent political debate, the highly qualified, experienced and highly regarded doctor that politicians took advice from on this issue stated that she didn’t know of any post 24 week terminations that occur in Victoria. The politician quoting this advice went on to say that based on this, she has to assume that psychosocial abortions either don’t or at least rarely occur. Yet her own government has a department that collects statistics on post 20 week terminations, and these statistics tell a very different story.
Not only is the range of foetal abnormalities extremely broad and not exclusive to conditions that would interfere with a child’s normal development, but 18 women in 2010-2011 had terminations after 28 weeks for psychosocial reasons, one of these occurring as late as 37 weeks.
Abortion advocates will of course minimise these women and their unborn children out of significance by quoting percentages of overall abortion numbers, something I consider to be an extreme form of misogyny. This one of the ways in which societies who want to control and undermine women work. They silence the experiences of women, telling them they are fortunate to have an option that allows them full participation in society, even if that option is to end the lives of their unborn children. Of course, women are also expected to be grateful for this choice and if by chance they happen to be unhappy about it at some later point, they will again be ridiculed and demeaned into silence.
Our politicians have done a great disservice to women in not being able to see past the ideology of abortion and rhetoric of choice. Until such time as we stop relegating women to statistics and start paying attention to their actual lives, it will continue to be easy to dismiss them, and expect them to say thank you for the privilege.