In the last few weeks, I have watched my Facebook and Instagram feed blow up over changing abortion laws in the US. The outrage began when Alabama approved legislation banning abortions in pretty much all cases, including instances of rape and incest. Missouri then followed, passing a bill stopping women from seeking the procedure after just eight weeks of pregnancy.
Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio and Georgia were next in line, approving abortion bans after six weeks of gestation. Sixteen other states are considering tightening their laws, and anti-abortion activists are even pushing to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe vs Wade decision, which protects a pregnant woman’s liberty to choose.
This is a dangerous, frightening time for cis women − particularly because approximately a third of women will choose to have an abortion at some point in their lives. And yet, though it is encouraging to see so many of my peers getting active and angry, perhaps it is worth reflecting on our own nation’s abortion laws and considering the pitfalls of our own system.
I am lucky to live in Victoria. Here, abortion is legal in the first twenty-four weeks of pregnancy. After that, it requires approval from two doctors. In 2015, ‘buffer zone’ laws were also passed making it illegal for anti-abortion protesters to operate within 150 metres of an abortion clinic.
However, in New South Wales, abortion remains a criminal offence. There are exemptions in special circumstances, including when a woman’s physical or mental health in endangered. But this does not include rape or incest. Women who unlawfully have abortions can be sent to prison, and the same goes for those who unlawfully perform them.
There are similar restrictions in other parts of the country. In Western Australia, abortion is unlawful unless performed before 20 weeks’ gestation. In South Australia, abortions are legal up to 28 weeks − but only if two doctors agree that a woman's physical or mental health is endangered by the pregnancy, or if there are serious foetal abnormalities. Meanwhile in Tasmania, though abortion is legal, many women are travelling interstate for the procedure because of limited access to state funded clinics.
In short, the laws are messy across the country. Sadly, a fair chunk of Australia’s regulations suggest that we subscribe to the archaic supposition that a woman better have a good reason for getting an abortion. There is no scope within the law for a woman to simply not be ready, to not want children at all, or to make the choice on the simple grounds of wanting to maintain autonomy over her own body.
The other day, I told my mother that I was thinking of writing about abortion because of ‘everything going on in the States’. We were standing in the kitchen while she peeled vegetables. She gave me a funny look and asked if I wanted to write about mine.
‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘Maybe.’
She urged me not to.
‘People need their privacy,’ she said. ‘You need yours.’
Is it privacy I need, though? Or am I hiding from my shame?
I was reluctant to write about my abortion after that because I was worried about the consequences. What if future employers discovered that I had had an abortion? Would this impact their decision to hire me?
Later on, after the vegetables were peeled, I wondered about that shame. Whether it is mine, or my mother’s, or some subconscious feeling arising from hostile debate in which the woman’s body is the stomping ground − debate that cries it is still a baby and it is still murder, no matter which way you look at it.
I carried my morning sickness quietly, kept it to myself. I remember walking in and out of lectures at university wondering how I would cope with feeling this sick again, whether it would be different next time, when I actually wanted a child.
I asked my partner if he remembered much about that time.
‘To me it’s all a blur,’ I tell him. ‘Maybe I blocked it out.’ And he tells me I have a bad memory anyway.
‘I remember it being very stressful,’ he says, ‘for both of us, even though the process was as smooth as possible.’
‘Where did the stress come from?’ I ask, and he pauses.
‘For me, maybe from not knowing how to comfort you, not knowing how to help you, not telling anyone.’
I asked him to keep it quiet when we found out, and he tells me he thought this was unfair, which it was. His parents are Christians, and I was scared of what they would think of us. Maybe it comes back to the shame.
Aside from any moral struggle a woman considering an abortion may face, the cost of the procedure can also be a source of stress and anxiety. The average cost of an abortion in Australia is around $500, except in South Australia and the Northern Territory, where abortions are predominantly free due to the provision being largely public. A 2017 study found that 1 in 3 women reported they found the costs of abortions difficult or very difficult to pay for. Those in regional and rural areas are particularly restricted. There, services are limited, and women are forced to travel long distances for the procedure (which means forking out more cash, too).
I couldn’t even remember how much my abortion cost − my partner told me later that it cost us around $400. But I remembered the women in the waiting room on the day of the procedure.
What surprised me was how diverse we all were. There were young women, old women, women who looked to be well off, women (like me) who seemed like they were struggling with economic pressures, women alone and women with their loved ones.
All of us were there for our own reasons. All of us were perfectly justified in our choices.
And not one of us was deserving of guilt or shame.
Abortion services can be really stressful. If you need help, or know someone who does, you can find information and support here:
Caitlin Cassidy is a Masters student in Global Media and a freelance writer. She works at Readings.