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The men all agree! But what about the women?

By Leslie Cannold - posted Tuesday, 9 November 2004

The word is in, most of the men agree. Tony Abbott, John Anderson, Christopher Pyne, Brendan Nelson, Eric Abetz, Ron Boswell, Barnaby Joyce, Steve Fielding, the Governor General Michael Jeffery and Andrew Robb don’t like abortions and believe women are having too many of them. In response to the funniest epidemic ever witnessed (Medicare figures show the abortion rate declining in the last decade), women are being chastised to be more responsible with contraception, to stop making uninformed decisions to terminate, to stop terminating for “convenience” and terminating so “late”.

I find myself tempted to reply to the ever-expanding circle of men who, with no embarrassment, continue to grasp the media microphones to offer their pronouncements on the myriad of women’s claimed reproductive failures, that if they don’t like abortion, they shouldn’t have one. But this sounds so old-fashioned. Back in the 1970s, such ripostes to those determined to keep abortions in the backyard were standard fare. But then, little has changed, despite the insistence of anti-choice activists like Family First’s Senator-elect Fielding that theirs is a kindler, gentler approach to micro-managing women’s reproductive decisions.

In fact, a smooth line can be drawn between past anti-choice arguments and those made by Fielding and others in the language of informed consent. Nearly all anti-choice activists are religious and past arguments for total prohibition were grounded in Christian beliefs that life began at conception. This made abortion killing, and the women who chose it immoral “murderers”.


Unsurprisingly, many women felt offended by the “murder” charge and the anti-choice movement’s lack of compassion for the hard choices unplanned pregnancies compel them to make. A change of strategy was needed, and it wasn’t long before one emerged. The new anti-choice strategy argues that abortion is wrong not because it kills fetuses, but because it hurts women by denying them informed consent and, to paraphrase Tony Abbott, coercing them into having “unwanted” abortions. The result is post-abortion grief and “trauma”.

What is the evidence for such claims? When trained university-based researchers knowledgeable in reliable research and statistical methods apply themselves to evaluating claims of post-abortion trauma they repeatedly find two things. The first is that only a minuscule percentage of women (those lacking social support, who believe abortion is wrong or who are aborting a wanted pregnancy after a negative pre-natal test) have emotional problems after abortion. Reputable studies repeatedly find that most women feel relief after abortion, and one year after the procedure, are coping well.

The second thing trained researchers using proper methods conclude is that research claiming significant numbers of women suffer post-abortion trauma is not worth the paper it’s written on. Recently, a group of extremely high-profile anti-choice researchers and activists concurred. In a 2004 article published in the Medical Scientific Monitor, they admitted that earlier studies claiming a link between abortion and post-traumatic stress “were limited due to their reliance upon either case studies or small samples”. The one exception, they said, was a large-sample study that showed - wait for it - a 1 per cent incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder following abortion. Hardly the sort of results justifying radical legislative change.

Unfortunately, such inconvenient facts are unlikely to stop the anti-choice parliamentary juggernaut. So what are they planning? A few years ago, legislation was passed in the ACT that required women to “cool off” for three days prior to obtaining an abortion (to stop them making impetuous decisions to abort) and mandatory information packages featuring photos of fetuses at different developmental ages (just in case none-too-bright women got confused about what a pregnancy entails). Fielding is clearly worried that even photographs run the risk of women missing his point. This is why he wants to compel all Australian women to view an ultrasound before terminating.

Right now, the odds are on a private member’s bill coming before the new parliament. It may reduce the Medicare rebate for some or all abortions, prohibit abortions altogether or after 12 weeks, dictate to women what they must view and how long they must wait before being eligible for an abortion - or all three. If it passes, by this time next year poor women across Australia wanting to terminate an unplanned pregnancy will be scrabbling around for the necessary funds and inevitably presenting for the procedure later they than would otherwise be the case. The sway of Federal law over the territories means women in the ACT and the Northern Territory may lose all or some of their capacity to choose safely, legally and with dignity.

Such high stakes mean all eyes are on the Prime Minister, something that Peter Costello’s call for calm heads and compassion doesn’t change. Will John Howard prevent the private member’s bills coming up for a vote? Will he tell his Health Minister to stop misusing his position to foist his religious views on the rest of the nation? Or will he deal away women’s reproductive freedom and dignity for a “yes” vote from the National’s to sell Telstra?

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First published in The Australian on November 9, 2004.

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About the Author

Dr Leslie Cannold is a writer, columnist, ethicist and academic researcher. She is the author of the award-winning What, No Baby? and The Abortion Myth. Her historical novel The Book of Rachael was published in April by Text.

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