While we gasp at the erosion and removal of Roe V Wade, we ignore our own lack of reproductive freedom
AMERICAN HORROR: THE 24 HOUR NEWS CYCLE
A lot of us women here in Australia freak out when we see our friend America through the eye of our 24 hour news cycle, much of it streamed directly from the US. Our media looked lovingly at the attractive, well-spoken and charismatic Obamas, and we reeled in collective horror to see Donald Trump not just become the Republican presidential candidate, but Barack Obama’s successor.
Now the ugly orange man is backing Brett Kavanaugh to become part of the US Supreme Court. When called to answer to Dr Ford’s sexual assault allegations on 27 September 2018, Kavanaugh dropped his previously affable manner in favour of what Anne Summers describes as “confected” rage. He directed his rage both toward his accuser, and female senator Amy Klobucher who questioned him. According to Summers, Kavanaugh’s rage “buried” Ford’s story, making her testimony weak in the face of it. This worries us because historically, our country’s political and military interests are shackled up to the American engine train. Significantly, our cultural identity is closely tied to America’s trends.
Of course, there’s more to the reservations about Kavanaugh than ‘just’ his shady, rape-y, past. There must be more. We’re used to quietly ignoring male aggression in our own MP’s. In Australia we’re doing much better than our sisters from the Middle-East, and many other parts of the non-Western world. Make no mistake though – seething beneath the surface there’s misogyny so deeply entrenched, many women don’t even stop to question it.
We’ve heard all about Tony Abbott’s wall punch. Bill Shorten seems to have escaped the ‘smear’ of a rape allegation. Even The Greens, our country’s most progressive party aren’t free from claims of rape or ‘sexual misconduct’. In a slightly more New Idea magazine type scandal, we tsk-tsk at Barnaby Joyce because he banged on about the sanctity of marriage while campaigning for the ‘No’ vote for same sex marriage, then lo and behold we find out he shagged a staffer while he was married. He also chose ‘the other woman’ over his long suffering wife and family. Joyce seemed like he might weather the storm, but resigned after a separate sexual harassment allegation surfaced. But he’ll be ok, jobs for the boys and all that.
At any rate, the Australian public gives a certain amount of leeway to the men who run our country, the same ones who have at one point or another, in one way or another, abused their positions of power. We know damn well our own political sphere needs a #metoo movement and doesn’t have one. When it comes to anger over it, we don’t seem to have enough – confected or not.
ROE V WADE
Back to the American Horror show, and Kavanaugh. So yeah, he probably raped a girl in his youth. Why else does the idea of his ascension to the US Supreme court freak out American and Australian? Here it is.
The Republican party are willing to put the next US election on the line to gain control of the US Supreme court. Once they have the numbers, they plan to repeal Roe v Wade. Roe v Wade instigated legal abortions (with conditions) for the whole of the USA.
Its repeal is a legitimate fear, and because we have a care for our American sisters, we’re quaking in our boots on their behalf. But also this: if Roe v Wade is repealed and abortion is made illegal in the US what does it mean for Australian women? Because we follow America pretty closely here.
We see America as the Superpower whose hide once seemed bullet proof; bomb proof. Over there in the land of the free, it looks more like a train wreck in slow motion. When it comes to stripping women of our freedom, we want to escape America’s pervasive influence. We’re worried about following in our big ‘jock’ brother’s footsteps. As Anne Summers, whom I deeply respect, evokes images of Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale come to life, I can’t help but wonder if Australians are so anesthetised by the state of our own politics, we’re too easily intrigued by the bells and whistles of the American sideshow. Danger! Danger!
As Alain de Botton, author of The News: A User’s Manual Alain says, the opposite of information restriction (a-la China, North Korea) with similar effects is providing a glut of information in the form of the 24 hour news cycle. You need to listen for what’s not being said, and wonder why no one’s saying it.
WAKE UP AUSTRALIA
As an Australian woman living in South Australia, I can assure you: When it comes to the US tide of conservatism that wants to repeal Roe v Wade and strip women of the right to terminate a pregnancy at their own will, we’re not following in America’s footsteps.
We’re already there.
As a woman living in South Australia under a ‘secular’ Labour government, I cannot legally acquire my own abortion for a silly little reason like, say, deciding it’s not right for me, and thinking I should have the ultimate say over what happens in my own body.
In South Australia abortion is a criminal act.
The state’s Crimes Act Part 3 Division 17 says so.
If you live in NSW, abortion is a crime there too.
I saw Erica Millar of the South Australian Abortion Action Coalition on the local news a few weeks ago, saying it’s time for change. Where is the media traction? Why is it easier for us to stare at our screens and talk about America than it is to talk about issues which affect us much more directly? Summers says anger is energising: Where is the anger, and where is the fear?
SA AND NSW THE LAST STATES TO CRIMINALISE ABORTION
As The Guardian’s Ben Smee reports, in Queensland “[a]bortion will become legal until 22 weeks gestation, and thereafter with the approval of two doctors. Safe access zones will restrict protesters and people who harass women from coming with[in] 150m of abortion clinics. Doctors will be allowed to refuse to treat a woman on moral grounds, but also legally required to refer her to another practitioner.”
Queensland’s abortion reforms are to be applauded. Contrast them with South Australia:
In the Crimes Act Part 3, Division 17, sections 81, 82 and 82A state women can seek legal abortions if certain conditions are met:
- If continuing the pregnancy would risk “grave injury to the physical or mental health” of the pregnant woman,
- If the foetus is likely to be born “severely handicapped.”
- and provided the woman has resided in South Australia for 2 months
Access to abortion hinges on the individual approval and assessment of two physicians. Even if independent doctors are satisfied an abortion is necessary under the above conditions, physicians in SA are under no obligation to perform procedures “to which he has a conscientious objection” to [bold text my emphasis, I think you know why it irks me]. Unlike new Queensland legislation, there is no requirement for the conscientious objector to refer the pregnant woman elsewhere.
MISOGYNY, MORALITY, AND THE LAW
Yes, a woman in SA or NSW might come across sympathetic doctors who will give the necessary proof, and perform the procedure. Is this even the point? As Erica Millar says, an unjust law not being stringently applied isn’t a reason to leave it unchanged.
And what if they don’t? That’s when Summer’s reference to The Handmaid’s Tale starts to become a bit scarier and a bit more real. The truth is we’re naive to the point of stupidity if we close our eyes to the laws of our country and state – you cannot blindly expect to be treated as a sentient being with full agency over your own body.
I knew a pregnant NSW woman from a major regional centre who made the mistake of answering her doctor’s question honestly: she said she thought she’d get an abortion if the foetus was assessed as high risk for Downs Syndrome or other chromosomal abnormalities. The doctor, who believed personhood began at conception, cited conscientious objection on moral and religious grounds and refused the referral.
The 13 week screening test, consisting of blood tests and an ultrasound is now a routine offering for all pregnant women specifically for the diagnosis of trisomy 21 (Downs Syndrome), 13, and 18. They’re meant to give a pregnant woman and her family or support unit an informed choice whether to proceed or to allow them time to educate and brace themselves for the reality of what’s in store if the foetus survives gestation.
If this happened to me, I wouldn’t have given up so easily, but that’s part of the point. See how easily our reproductive choices are removed when someone else’s moral compass is imposed on our bodies? See how the agency of a less educated, unsupported, or less confident woman is stripped more quickly than a woman with more education or from a higher socio-economic background? How many other women were refused care by the same doctor?
Here’s another example.
At the time of writing, over in NSW the Reverend Fred Nile is trying for the fourth time to get Zoe’s Law through state parliament. The surface-level story behind the instigation of Zoe’s Law is heartbreaking: a woman and her family wanting justice for a wanted child lost through the negligent or violent actions of a third party. The bill was passed by the NSW lower house in 2014, then withdrawn by Nile when it was obvious it wouldn’t pass the upper house. Nile preys on women who have lost wanted babies as a result of negligent drivers or violent partners. Nile, who believes personhood begins at conception, has an ulterior motive rooted in one of the most influential and misogynistic patriarchal constructs: Christianity. In attributing personhood to foetuses, Zoe’s law will go further to rob women of their agency and reproductive rights.
KNOW YOUR REPRODUCITVE RIGHTS
According to information broadcasted on SBS’s The Feed, SA is the only state to record and publish data on abortions. SA was the first state in Australia to add provisions so women could ‘procure’ an abortion and be free of criminal prosecution in some circumstances (sections 81, 82 and 82A). Now SA is lagging behind the rest of Australia, barring NSW where abortion is also a criminal offence.
Check your state’s abortion laws here – note per above, on 17 October Queensland parliament voted to leave SA and NSW as the last two states which consider “procuring an abortion” a criminal act with heavy penalties, including lifetime imprisonment. Don’t just check the laws – think about why they’re there.
THE PROBLEM WITH GOD: PLAYING WITH THE BIG BOYS
Hippocrates, who is credited with distinguishing medicine from religion, thought the ideal woman was an empty vessel. (Eg. Medical diagnostics on female infertility included incense being burned underneath a woman, and if the smell came ‘through’ her, and out of her mouth, she was still deemed a fit vessel.) This misinformation influenced medicine for thousands of years to follow, as well as dogma in Eastern religions.
The idea of woman as subject and man as object pervades our modern lives, because it was carried forward through the Eastern religions so prominent in our modern world – I call them The Big 3: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. “He shall bruise your head, and you will strike his heel”. It’s no surprise The Big 3 have always had a hard time with that Other: woman. Each with their very similar omnipresent, omnipotent male without so much as a female consort, the woman’s role as birth-giver, or as far as physical evidence goes, the most obvious life-giver, was bound to be problematic. The men tried to cover this one off fairly neatly: “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb”. Ah, ok.
Whether you’re religious or not, this matters. It matters because the deep, deep fabric of our society’s subconscious was knitted together by a patriarchy determined to live in “God’s” own image, denigrating woman to be subjugated; a suspicious, mysterious being which must be tightly controlled. And it matters because even today, in Western countries and all around the world we see this resonate. In times of stress when the dominant culture of nations question their identity, or see their power ebbing, taking control of women’s bodies seems to be a statement and reassertion of the patriarchy’s power. Cue Trump, Kavanaugh, and white America’s fears of being overrun by traditionally subordinate peoples. But what does this say about Australia? What does it say about South Australia?
SOUTH AUSTRALIA: QUIETLY ROBBING WOMEN OF THEIR REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS SINCE 1861
There’s very little vim and vigour in discourse surrounding the criminalisation of abortion in NSW and SA. SA’s criminalisation of abortion is based on a law from Victorian England written in 1861. 60 years before women were allowed to vote and were legally (thus literally) someone’s property. The law included punishments for failing to feed your servants properly.
This is the part where I urge Australian women to wake up and look at the abortion laws in your own states. If abortion is legal in your state, know the safeguards and provisos which can become barriers to the safe, legal abortion you assume is your right. Know how easily your legal rights can be stripped away.
Erica Millar, of Adelaide University writes:
“Australian laws obstruct access to abortion. Gestational limits, which are generally interpreted conservatively, often make second and third trimester abortions accessible solely to those who can afford to travel interstate or overseas…South Australians cannot access medical abortion via telehealth or their GPs and must travel to Adelaide or a handful of regional centres.”
IT’S TIME TO LOOK AWAY – AND GET ANGRY AT OUR OWN LAWS
Anne Summers is right. Rage is debilitating. When we’re enraged, we have no words. Anger can be energising and productive.
Anger is something we simply don’t have enough of here.
While we don’t need to be completely insular, it’s time to stop getting hooked on the drama of the American Horror show. We feel for American women, but America isn’t leading us into the past, our legislators are keeping us there. Don’t waste your anger on something you can’t hope to influence: direct it to your own country, the politicians in your own state – where women’s rights and reproductive liberties are not the rock solid ‘given’ you may think they are.
Jennifer is an Adelaide-based freelance copywriter, storyteller, and Opinionated Woman. Jennifer’s mum once told her she had too many opinions: Jennifer thought “Bollocks”, but reserves opinion pieces for social issues and awkward truth-telling. Jennifer lives the juggle and keeps life simple, but loves complexity inside a glass of red.
Why are we doing this thing? Because there’s enough noise in the world telling women what we ‘should’ be doing.
We should parent more consciously, but not be helicopter parents. We should take care of our bodies, but not be vain. We should make boys pay, but demand equal rights. We should dress appropriately, but also be confident in our skin, wear what we want, but not be provocative, oh and please feel comfortable in the world’s skimpiest school bathers but then wear your jeans to the formal because last year the boys looked up the girls’ skirts and so you’ll have to be the ones to modify your behaviour. Yeah. No.
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