Rhythms of Abortion Reform
No woman can call herself free who does not control her own body.
—Margaret Sanger (1879–1966), founder of modern-day Planned Parenthood
Many years ago I went to see my family doctor. It was September, one year into a post-9/11 world, and Melbourne’s streets reeked of plane trees and fear. I was 19, and I was pregnant. I sat on the plastic chair in the waiting room and thought about what that meant. I thought about how I would lose my job (I did) and how furious my parents would be (they were). A little girl pushed wooden beads around a track. A boy turned the TV on and off. The news headlines boomed, then didn’t, did, didn’t, and I thought about the foetus burrowing into me and I was afraid.
‘I’m pregnant,’ I told the doctor. He looked at me with such disappointment that I felt compelled to add, ‘I think.’
‘Are you here for a referral?’ he said.
‘Is that what I do now? Go to a hospital?’
‘I mean a referral to a clinic.’
‘What kind of clinic?’
He was already typing my name into the template. ‘You know, a clinic.’ He moved his hands euphemistically, miming what he imagined it would be like to have an abortion.
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I don’t know.’ But I took the referral anyway.
As I was leaving, he put his hand on my shoulder and sighed. ‘No one adopts them out anymore,’ he said. ‘It’s all so easy.’
• • •
More than a quarter of Australians think abortion is somewhat or very unacceptable—and a good chunk of them seem to be in parliament.
Globally, governments are as conservative and outspoken on anti-abortion measures as they have been in living memory. In 2017, Cory Bernardi moved a motion in the Senate that included calling abortion advocates ‘pro death’. In 2006 Tony Abbott called for subsidised church-affiliated counselling for pregnant women. During his 2016 election campaign, Donald Trump explicitly stated, ‘I will be appointing pro-life judges.’
Conservative politics has ushered in a new cycle of abortion regulation led by an increasingly emboldened—and uninformed—right-wing voice. Per The New York Times last May:
Initially, many Democrats and abortion rights groups believed that the notion was so absurd that it was not worth responding to it. But they discovered that was a dangerous assumption to make in an information environment dominated by Mr. Trump.
This was on bold display in the weeks leading up to the NSW abortion decriminalisation bill in 2019. In September, LNP pollies hollered at a Hyde Park rally of like-minded people: reportedly 10,000 conservative anti-abortionists.
Echoing Trump’s sentiment, Abbott told the crowd that abortion is ‘infanticide on demand’. Barnaby Joyce, who was also present, called the proposed bill ‘the slavery debate of our time’, saying the word ‘foetus’ was used instead of ‘person’ as a deliberate strategy to dehumanise someone you intended to kill. But in likening abortion to women slaughtering their own children, Abbott, Joyce, Trump and others like them drew a comparison they may not have intended, revealing how little they understand of how we got here.
In nineteenth-century white Australia, infanticide was relatively common—some statistics claimed it accounted for up to 80 per cent of all recorded ‘stillbirths’. The Perth Gazette and West Australian Times, in 1866, called it a ‘fashionable crime’, in which imagined public places were overflowing with abandoned babies:
[Infanticide] is a fashionable crime just now. Our quiet squares, the dark corners of our streets, our door steps, and sundry other localities, are the public depositories selected by travelling maids and unnatural mothers for the abandonment and desertion of their infants.
For some women, it was seen as a form of birth control alongside abstinence (which wasn’t allowed either) and surgical and medical abortion. The newborn infant was an extension of the pregnancy, and ending its life after birth posed less of a risk to the mother than seeking a dangerous abortion.
While unmarried pregnant women were condemned, married ones were subordinate to their husbands under common law. Men insisted that these women carry their foetuses to term, but no woman had the legal right to be fully responsible for her children, or even to be in contact with them, while her husband was alive. She was expected to be available to her husband’s sexual desires, knowing it could result in pregnancy, but was not permitted to abstain or use birth control. This lack of autonomy led to other methods of control: procuring abortion, self-induced abortion, concealing births, and infanticide.
At this point in history, women were still largely responsible for childbirth. Babies were usually delivered in the home by a midwife, who was a woman. Midwives could write birth certificates and death certificates. Most pertinently, a ‘stillborn’ infant did not need to be sighted by a doctor, so the midwife herself could report the infant as having died before its birth.
The Age, in 1886, reported on evidence provided to the select committee of the Legislative Council on birth registrations: a police sergeant said a case had occurred in Sydney, in which a child had been registered by a midwife as stillborn, despite being two months old at the time of its death. ‘The undertaker and the midwife,’ he said, ‘seemed to have been old friends.’ Wink wink, falsified documents. A conspiracy of witches.
Doctors were troubled by these events. Women, they figured, were colluding, having thousands of babies and chucking them out. To some minds, there was an epidemic of women falling pregnant—on purpose—and wantonly discarding the resultant child. A rivalry grew between midwives and doctors.
Their solution was to medicalise childbirth. In the late 1800s, women started to give birth in a hospital environment, despite a greater exposure to infection and disease, and the likelihood of surgical treatment. Menstruation and pregnancy were framed as abnormalities, sicknesses that had to be treated by a male professional. In this new framework, women’s bodies were diseased. They were subject to medical conditions a man’s body never would be, and so were inferior. They deviated from the norm, and doctors wanted to make sure they knew it.
The shift to pregnancy-as-illness transformed a women’s space into a pathological issue, and made mothers mere vessels.
• • •
Between 1993 and 1998 in the United States, seven doctors and clinic staff were murdered in planned, targeted attacks by anti-abortionists. In 2001, a security guard at a Melbourne abortion clinic was shot and killed by a man who intended to set the whole place alight, including its 15 staff and 26 patients. A 2015, three people died at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs—at his hearing, the suspect referred to himself as a ‘warrior for the babies’.
• • •
Nineteenth-century abortion was hugely risky and expensive, costing about a pound (a week’s wages for some of these women). Methods provided by moonlighting doctors varied from abortifacients—pennyroyal, tansy, eucalyptus—to rudimentary surgical procedures. Ads for the service were euphemistic: a ‘disease peculiar to females’ or a ‘woman’s obstruction’. Many women attempted to induce miscarriage on their own. The chance of infection and haemorrhage was high.
These women sought abortion for all sorts of reasons, but as is still true, many had children already. An 1893 police statement from Clara Atkinson—who had procured an abortion—says: ‘I knew I was pregnant. As we were in poor circumstances and have eight children, I did not want more.’ Atkinson’s abortion was not revealed to her husband until she haemorrhaged and the attending doctor reported her to police.
Others were avoiding the shame of impropriety. In 1897, single woman Jessie Burnett Cass, who was 19, travelled to Adelaide to procure an abortion. In a letter to her lover, she wrote, ‘… it will be better for me to go under the operation … than to have the child.’ After the procedure, having travelled home to Port Pirie, infection killed her.
By contrast, infanticide was cheap and safe. These are probably hard words to understand. Infanticide was a way for women to take control of these situations. It was about twice as prevalent among unwed women and those of lesser means. Men of Abbott’s ilk don’t hate it because infants died—if that were true, they wouldn’t separate babies from their refugee mothers or deport children with greater needs—but because it represents one of the few ways a woman was able to take back her life.
There is a long tradition of men with voices—politicians, journalists, lawyers—absolutely furious about baby killing as sport. For example, at a global level the Worker reported in 1898 that of the 50,000 stillbirths recorded in France that year, as many as 40,000 could be ‘children who are slaughtered because society pressed too hardly upon the parents already, and these would not incur the responsibility of providing for the new lives they had created’.
The Sydney Morning Herald, on reporting causes of death in October 1859, described an increase in ‘child desertion’ and its cause—that women of ill repute were having sex without being married (presumably with men who were logically also unmarried or adulterers, though they warranted little mention):
It is assumed and doubtless with justice, that the children thus thrown into the street … are the offspring of illicit intercourse on the part of unmarried persons, and that the offense of child desertion is committed by the mother in order to save her from the loss of reputation consequent on the fact of having given birth to an illegitimate child being known.
The Launceston Examiner, in 1894, had a rather more forthright opinion on concealing infanticide. Describing the state of medical and death records in Britain (many of which also applied in Australia), it said, ‘the law here seems to make murder as easy as possible’. It recommended that a certificate from ‘the medical man’ or the coroner be required in order to bury stillborn infants, as a way of making it more difficult for mothers to kill them.
John Cash Neild, a Sydney politician who passed the Children’s Protection Act there in 1892, said in 1894: ‘There were a very large number of children murdered and stowed away in back-yards under the nominal heading of “still-births”’. In a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Act is described as remedying laws that ‘afforded ample facilities for the concealment of birth, and possibly the destruction of infant life’.
There was and is no equivalent charge for fathers. No woman in Australia was ever hanged for the crime of infanticide, though the death penalty was technically available. The most common outcome was instead to charge her with concealment of birth. That carried a maximum of three years imprisonment with hard labour, while her children—so beloved by men! so vital to have kept!—starved alone at home.
• • •
The year 2019 was a banner year for abortion. The United States ploughed ahead with reproductive-rights regression so obscene it defied science. In Alabama, legislation was signed to ban abortion outright, even in cases of incest. Mississippi, Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky and Missouri passed ‘heartbeat’ bans on abortions after six to eight weeks. In Ohio, a bill was introduced that would require doctors to perform a miracle and ‘reimplant an ectopic pregnancy’, relocating it from the patient’s fallopian tube into the uterus under threat of charges of ‘abortion murder’, a laughably conservative tautology.
The only way these bills can be written is with a wilful misrepresentation of our bodies. We cannot choose not to conceive during rape. At six weeks, a ‘heartbeat’ is just an electrical impulse in foetal tissue. And, to be absolutely clear, an ectopic pregnancy cannot become viable.
Pregnancies are dated thus: usually, ovulation happens two weeks after a period, then the fertilised egg implants in the days after that. But the pregnancy is dated from the last period—two weeks before the egg was even released. At ‘four weeks pregnant’, the next period usually isn’t even late yet. Recognising signs and symptoms might be easy for someone who’s paying close attention, but they are often so subtle: a tender boob, a slight cramp, a weird smell. In the busyness of life, early pregnancy is easy to miss, especially if you’re not expecting it.
This is a pantomime of options. A choice behind a curtain. A restriction in decision’s clothes. The people in charge know this, but feign ignorance designed to coerce women into giving up ownership of their bodies. The bills they are writing enforce medical impossibilities; prioritising control of women’s bodies over the women and over reality.
• • •
In Maude’s 1972 episode ‘Maude’s Dilemma’, the titular character (perennial legend Bea Arthur) considers abortion. Roe v. Wade would soon be decided, and abortion was already legal in New York, where the show was set. In the episode, Maude’s daughter tells her, ‘We’re free. We finally have the right to decide what we can do with our own bodies.’
Nearly 40 years later, fiction has changed. We’re less naive now. Our stories reflect the constant battle to keep hold of our right to choose. In a year of huge regression, on-screen abortion was more realistic than ever. In Morning Wars, a drama offering from Apple TV+, Reese Witherspoon sits at a morning-news desk, turns to Jennifer Aniston and says, ‘Heck, I had an abortion when I was 15 years old.’ Shock ensues. Abortion! On the telly! But the story moves past the fallout. In the episodes that follow it touches on the impact of restrictions on those who might need access. We learn that Mississippi students have staged a six-hour strike, representing the time it would take them to travel to the state’s only legal abortion clinic.
In Jane the Virgin, a drama in the tradition of Latin American telenovelas, Xiomara opts for a medical abortion to end an unwanted pregnancy. Show-runner Jennie Snyder Urman said in an interview, ‘I’ve seen a lot of the torment and the torture of making that choice or considering that choice, but what I hadn’t seen is that some women who make that choice are relieved.’
We see high schooler Maeve (Emma Mackey) choose to abort in Sex Education, heading to the clinic after school has ended for the day. Mackey told Refinery29 that ‘She just gets on with it because she has to.’ In Dear White People, Coco (Antoinette Robertson) makes a conscious choice to break the cycle of poverty in her family by aborting her unplanned pregnancy. Australian series The Letdown and Canadian offering Workin’ Moms both depicted the frank abortions of women who were already mothers. Paula from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend even speaks openly with her sons about her choice to terminate.
Shrill, an adaptation of Lindy West’s book of the same name, sends main character Annie (Aidy Bryant) for an abortion right there in the pilot. From an interview with West: ‘This is a pivotal moment for [Annie] in her life but not in the way that abortion is usually treated as a pivotal moment. This isn’t an agonizing decision for her.’
Televised abortion is no longer a woman agonising in euphemisms. It runs the gamut of accessibility, economy, politics, feminism and life. It acknowledges obstacles, disinformation and the importance of access. Rights reversal happens in parallel. As our pop culture becomes more comfortable with abortion, conservative politicians fight against it. Earlier shows such as Murphy Brown and Dawson’s Creek often showed a different side. Their characters deliberated, decided to abort, then realised how silly that was and went ahead with their pregnancies. Oh joy! Oh life-affirming procreation!
It fit nicely with the trope that all women come to regret their choice. Men such as Abbott and anti-abortionist Barnaby ‘I had a baby with a staffer’ Joyce and the 25 white dudes who voted to ban abortion in Alabama love this punishment. Conservatives like to imagine that we, newly aborted, will gaze down at where our microscopic zygote would have been and feel overwhelmed by regret. Surely, they posit while punishing refugees in prison camps, pregnant women must want to protect their embryonic sac at all costs. The laws they create demand this of us; they are meaningless without maternal emotion attached.
Sometimes it’s true. When I was pregnant with my second daughter, I had a threatened miscarriage. I was hospitalised with bleeding and hyperemesis. In those days I hugged my belly tight and begged the universe to let me keep hold of that clutch of multiplying cells. I was so bereft I thought I would die. Later, I did have a miscarriage, in a friend’s toilet. For ten years I hung an extra ornament on our Christmas tree for the child I felt I had lost.
But I’m imbuing it with meaning. An abortion can occur with any emotion. Patients might feel deep remorse, or overwhelming relief. They might be very sad, or not at all sad. They might be angry, tired, disappointed, pragmatic. They might feel nothing. They might think they’re not doing it for the ‘right reasons’. They might miss what could have been, or never think about it again. They might wish they hadn’t done it, or be glad they did. All of these are valid.
And the feelings can be complex. They can change over time. We can feel sadness and relief together. This is confusing for conservative men, who can only have one thought at a time (‘Where is my gun?’). They’ve invented two ways to understand women who have abortions. 1: Women hate babies. Loathe them! They think all babies should be murdered in cold blood and tossed into a mass grave so the women can keep going to feminist orgies. 2: Women are devastated by their poor choices. They will grieve the unborn babies they slaughtered forever. All they have now is regret.
In 2019’s regressive abortion bills there’s no room for a middle ground. They don’t account for a woman who would have preferred not to but is still grateful that she could. Usually, the decision is more like what we see on TV. Practical, difficult and logical. It’s often not the supercharged, life-changing dilemma conservative politicians imagine.
But they have to believe it is. That’s how they control the narrative and, by extension, us. Sorry, Maude.
• • •
Reproductive coercion is one of the most insidious forms of domestic violence. Australian organisation Children by Choice says around one in seven of their clients are experiencing it, while three-quarters of them are also experiencing other forms of domestic violence. Women from CALD and ATSI backgrounds are more likely to be coerced. Women under 20 are also overrepresented.
Criminalisation doesn’t prevent abortion. Although rates are declining in the United States, most of the reduction has been in states where access was not further restricted. Countries where abortion is still illegal (which, until last year, included Australia) have a slightly higher rate compared to places where it’s legal, according to the Guttmacher Institute. A paper in The Lancet reports around 45 per cent of abortions worldwide are performed in unsafe conditions (without a trained professional or using outdated methods). Abortion reportedly causes about 8 to 11 per cent of all maternal deaths in places where abortion is illegal.
Already marginalised people are most at risk. Amnesty International says the most disproportionately affected are those on low income, adolescents, lesbian or bisexual cisgender women and girls, trans women, gender-nonconforming people, those in cultural minorities, and Indigenous women. Of the 25 million unsafe abortions estimated by the World Health Organisation to be performed each year, 97 per cent happened in developing countries. Middle Africa is the least safe place in the world to have one.
Unlike the ‘coathanger’ trope of the Roe v. Wade era, modern alternatives to safe legal abortion are evolving. A University of Texas study found that some women in the United States are going online to buy abortifacients including misoprostol and mifepristone. Reasons included the expense of a clinic-based abortion, privacy and state restrictions—not just legality, but imposed obstacles such as waiting periods and ultrasound policies. In 2018, scientific journal Contraception reported on the experience of buying abortion pills from online vendors and found that most arrived without confiscation—and without instructions—from India. They concluded that it’s reasonable to expect that women without access to clinic-based abortion might consider procuring pills online.
Unexpected pregnancy still accounts for almost half of all pregnancies in Australia. Marie Stopes reports 51 per cent of Australian women have had an unplanned pregnancy. Of those, they say 75 per cent do not want counselling around their choice; around 29 per cent of these pregnancies end in abortion. More than half of abortion patients have children already.
• • •
Here’s an honest account of one sad gal’s abortion. When I was 25 I visited a Victorian-era building on a hill in Richmond, near the river. I filled in a form. I had to pay $450 in advance. They gave me an aspirin in anticipation of the pain I would experience. When my name was called, I was forced to look at a scan of my foetus. I was ten weeks pregnant and, as I was a mother already, I recognised parts of the ultrasound; I could see its arms, its legs. I could see a rapid white flutter right in the middle.
In that moment I felt tremendous doubt about my decision. They took me to a tiny change room, where I put on a white gown. The procedure room had a big window with a garden outside. My abortion was performed under a local anaesthetic; I can still remember the sound of the vacuum and the peculiarity of feeling pain on the inside of my body. The doctor, nurse and anaesthetist were all men. They joked with each other. I laughed, too, at the jokes.
Afterwards I was installed in a recovery room with about eight others. The womanness of it struck me then. This procedure is not exclusive to women but we are most of the patients and there we were, in bays of beds with curtains between. We were like dairy cows. We had been herded through the gate and de-foetused, then given a Milo. We were incubators that had been unplugged at the wall.
I imagined our experience was homogenous, but of course it wasn’t. We had each come to the clinic with our different bags—I had two small children at home and had recently left my husband; another woman offered that she had just started a new job. Some had come in secret, while others had partners waiting for them in the next room. We were all kinds of ages and of many different cultural backgrounds.
After half an hour I said goodbye to the others. I wondered if they had been made to watch their smudges dance on an ultrasound screen. I wondered if it ever caused someone to change their mind.
In the street, I waited for my partner to bring the car around. My cervix ached. Blood had pooled in my undies. I didn’t feel empowered. I just felt small, cut apart. As if I had reclaimed the most minute fraction of something that should always have been mine to begin with.
• • •
I used to think if we had a good enough reason, men would be on board with abortion. I thought, maybe if she has been coerced, they would permit her to terminate. Or, maybe if she has a medical condition that means she’ll die if the pregnancy continues. When I realised that wasn’t sufficient I thought, maybe if a woman is gang-raped, or a victim of sex trafficking. When that wasn’t enough either, I thought, maybe if she is a child, maybe if she is only 11 years old and an adult man has violated and abused her. Surely then. But in 2019 just such a girl was forced to deliver a child by caesarean section in Argentina. Her alleged rapist was 65 years old. The baby died.
So here is the ultimate question: what do these men want to happen? The Morrison government’s new religious discrimination bill would make it legal for a doctor—even if they were the only doctor in town—to refuse to give a woman an abortion, or to even refer her for one. It would also be legal for that doctor to tell the woman later she was going to burn for having sex outside of marriage, or to tell her the baby was hell-bound because it wasn’t christened, or to refuse to prescribe her birth control on religious grounds.
There is no option in this conservative perspective for a woman to make choices to control her fertility, at any stage of her would-be pregnancy. You abstain until you have a husband, then you cherish every blessing he injects into you while you get yourself off in the bathroom after.
It must be true, then, that these policy-makers love children. After all, they’re prepared to invest all this time and energy in making sure they get born.
Haha, just kidding! The bill would allow a teacher to tell children they were worse off without a ‘traditional’ family unit, or that their mothers were sinful. This same government has stripped welfare from migrant family groups and threatened to deport families with disabled children. They have invested in financial support to keep women at home with violent husbands—something that exposes children to increased risk of learning difficulties, substance-use disorders, aggressive behaviour and other mental health issues. The truth is, women are punished whatever they choose.
A quarter of Australians still won’t abide abortion. But if women do have a baby, they must make sacrifices to care for it. In part because of the disruption of motherhood, women retire with less super, have fewer full-time working years and rely more heavily on their partner’s income. The US National Bureau of Economic Research found that having children drives a 20 per cent pay gap over the long term.
If women choose to remain childless—with or without abortion—according to an Indiana University–Purdue University study, people will consider them morally wrong. The act of getting pregnant is also controlled: assisted reproduction such as IVF and IUI are unacceptable to many Christian denominations; those that do allow it often impose restrictions where it requires embryo or egg donation, or outside marriage.
A 2010 study showed more than 40 per cent of Australian men agreed that it was better if the husband were the principal breadwinner, while the wife had primary responsibility for the home and children—a figure that’s increased since the 1990s. ‘Overall’, it states, ‘our results indicate that the trend toward more liberal attitudes about gender has stalled in Australia and in some cases, reversed.’
Women have forgotten their bodies are inferior, diseased, abnormal. Men need to make them remember.
• • •
I think often about what my doctor said to me, about how easy it now is to have an unplanned pregnancy. I thought about it while I read notes on the heartbeat bill and while I watched women travel hundreds of kilometres to march for legalisation in Ireland and while Tony Abbott told a group of men that we are, to paraphrase, baby murderers.
But this is what noisy conservative men have missed about infanticide. In New South Wales, where Abbott’s comments were made, infanticide is a crime that can only be committed by a woman. Legally, it’s the death of a child under 12 months of age at the hands of a mother whose mental wellbeing has been disturbed by birth or lactation. The NSW law is based on the UK Infanticide Act 1938, which was explicitly created because a lack of support for unmarried women drove such high rates. Infanticide is treated as a manslaughter charge, and so carries a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison, but there has been only one conviction in New South Wales since 2006—that woman was given a three-year good behaviour bond.
Abortion is like infanticide on demand. It recognises the tremendous strain of birthing a child, the burden, the fear, the dissolution of self. Both laws are a decree of empathy. They are not for the egregious murder of babies but for a woman’s right to be safe. They are the legislation of mercy.
Oh with the lips apart,
With a long and shuddering sob,
Is it strange that this failed creature’s heart
For her child of shame should throb?
’Tis the only love now left.
Yet the thought her soul alarms
That t’were better she were by death bereft.
Of the burden in her arms.¹ •
Anna Spargo-Ryan is a novelist and a winner of the Horne Prize. She is a PhD candidate at Deakin University, researching nineteenth-century pregnancy avoidance and childbirth.
1. Portion of a poem published in the South Australian Register, 26 August 1879, after the trial of Johanna Sullivan for the crime of infanticide, as a plea for a foundling hospital that might prevent future deaths.