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Australia needs national abortion protection

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The late Tasmanian Senator Brian Harradine prevented progress on abortion for many years (screenshot via YouTube).

To allow women adequate access to abortion services, they must be available across the country writes Cali Bourne.

A few weeks ago we saw Sydneysiders protesting against the lack of abortion rights in Australia, fearing that our Government's lack of concern regarding reproductive laws could result in the "heartbeat bills" seen in six American states earlier this year.

The protest's organisers may have been gifted with some foresight — on 22 June in Newcastle, NSW it was reported that an anti-abortion advertisement had appeared emblazoned across the Newcastle bus system, bearing the slogan ‘the heart beats at four weeks’.

The company in charge of creating the slogan is known as Emily’s Voice and their advertisement is based on what obstetricians describe as a misnomer.

The term "foetal heartbeat" is nothing more than a colloquialism doctors use among themselves and patients. The spread of misinformation by advertisements from groups like Emily’s Voice widen the health gap already present for the pregnant.

When it comes to "womens health" and reproductive rights, we are already at a disadvantage in Australia: not only does our right to a medically safe abortion depend upon the state we live in, but the health issues that primarily affect a vulva-bearing child (AFAB people) are less likely to be studied in clinical trials.

Science has a massive issue when it comes to testing medication, even medication intended only for AFAB people (such as contraceptives, like the pill) on AFAB people. In her new book Doing Harm, Maya Dusenberry explores the historical dismissal of "women's health" by science and the detriment this has caused to education for people regarding their bodies. "Women's pain" is more likely to be dismissed by doctors, and this gap again widens when concerning AFAB people of colour.

The saying "a lie can get halfway around the world before the truth has time to put its shoes on" has never been more prevalent in the age of social media and the internet. This is a time in history where one ill-formed opinion with no scientific or evidential basis can go viral and act as the informant for a new slew of anti-abortion activists.

Luckily, Newcastle Transport pulled the advertisement quickly, but even the website of Emily’s Voice makes the claim that a foetus having a "heartbeat" at four weeks is a scientific fact. This is false.

As evidenced above, it is a nickname made to provide conversational ease between doctors, other medical professionals and patients. Unfortunately, this colloquialism seems to have created a harmful urban legend about the proximity a collection of cells has to birthrights.

Many anti-abortion activists appear to rarely take into account the life of a potential mother: are they mentally and physically well enough to bear a child? Do they have financial stability? Are they in an abusive relationship, struggling with addiction or illness, do they already have children?

If anti-abortion advocates truly wanted to help people bear safe, full-term pregnancies, they would be better off campaigning for sexual education reforms to avoid teen pregnancies and ensuring that those who are pregnant have access to resources such as crisis counsellors, family counsellors and accessible (free) contraceptives.

Anti-abortion activists should be addressing issues like affordable housing, dental and healthcare for families, and a higher level of public education funding and teaching standards, because it’s more likely than not the future child of a single parent, or low-income couple who weren’t ready for a child, will end up in the public school system.

Advertisements that widen the health gap do not support people living with unexpected or unwanted pregnancies in any way shape or form. They misinform the public and normalise the idea of ownership and control over people’s bodies. They also reduce those who have wombs to just that — walking wombs, with no complexity imagined in regard to who they are and what they want out of life.

In Australia, abortion laws have always been decided at the state level. In New South Wales, abortion laws have not been significantly updated since 1900.

It is still a criminal offence for a pregnant person to receive, or a doctor to administer, an abortion unless the mother's life and wellbeing are at risk. In some cases, economic factors for low-income unwanted pregnancies may count as grounds for a legal abortion.

Our abortion law history is tied up in personal belief systems that do not rely on a proper analysis of the benefits of medically safe abortions: During the 1990’s Tasmanian Senator Brian Harradine effectively controlled the state of abortion and abortifacient availability (namely the import and provision of RU-486) in Australia. When the Howard government looked to broker a deal with him, looking for support for Howard’s privatisation of Telstra, Harradine acquiesced in return for support regarding strict anti-abortion availability policies.

The idea that the bodily autonomy of a group of people could depend, ultimately, upon two men – who will never get pregnant – attempting to gain political control in certain areas illustrates a very shadowy, dystopian landscape.

Before heartbeat advertisements on buses, we had horrific images of coathangers used to spread the idea that abortions were intolerably unsafe and altogether bad. However, medically safe abortions are no more dangerous for a pregnant person to undergo than an actual pregnancy.

Neither medical (drug-induced) or surgical abortions cause infertility issues down the line (neither does frequent use of the morning after pill or LARCs, according to current medical knowledge) unless complications, such as infections, arise.

The biggest risk those seeking an abortion face is not being provided one in a safe, clean, medical setting, or having to be granted access to abortion through traumatic, time-consuming and sometimes public dealings with the courts.

During my personal experience of high-school in a rural NSW area, I heard countless tales of young women travelling to Victoria and the ACT to access safe, legal abortions.

Thank god they weren’t doing what some Northern Irish women have to do, and either travel overseas, or order abortifacients online and take them without doctor supervision.

Fortunately, Harradine's legislative control passed and RU-486 was legalised in Australia. Today, people facing unwanted pregnancies have the option to choose either a medical or surgical termination if these are accessible within their state. However, abortions themselves remain subject to state laws, and New South Wales is among the strictest.

The Labor Party’s 2019 campaign suggested a national abortion policy, which would grant funding to public hospitals and ask them to grant abortions when requested. The policy also asked New South Wales to decriminalise the procedure. Unfortunately, the Liberal party offered no such policy in the campaign leading them to victory and Prime Minister Scott Morrison declined to discuss the issue.

Perhaps the best option when it comes to reproductive rights would be a complete national overhaul working off new policy likely supported by Labor: making abortion legal, safe and accessible at the federal level and allowing doctors to perform them in all public hospitals.

At the very least, this would prevent shady deals between politicians who don’t see abortion as a healthcare issue and think bodily autonomy should be up for debate. Abortion is as much an issue of resources and capitalism as it is bodily autonomy. 

Neither should be played as a card that can be dealt to flip the position of power, or hide behind the smokescreen of political doublespeak, fear-mongering and misinformation.

Cali Bourne is a writer, artist and online sex educator. You can follow Cali on youtube.com/calibourne, Twitter @calibournelive and Instagram.

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