Arj Barker, Colin Hay and Rebel Wilson on Can of Worms. Photo: Channel Ten
Q. What do you get the blonde who has everything?
A: An abortion.
Rebel Wilson Photo: Steven Siewert SWS
When Rebel Wilson told the above joke on a recent episode of Channel Ten’s Can of Worms, I was stunned. I half expected a siren to start wailing and an extraction team to abseil down from the roof. Abortion, they would hiss at her in the interrogation room, is no laughing matter.
But the audience did laugh - perhaps a little nervously, but with sufficient good humour nonetheless. Wilson moved onto another joke, this time about sluts. And in the end, a good time was had by all.
I enjoyed Wilson’s joke not just because it was a bit cheeky and shocking, but because I’m a committed fan of using abortion humour to destigmatise a procedure which is far less emotionally damaging than the status quo would have you believe. A society that perpetuates ridiculous stereotypes about abortions and the kinds of women who have them deserves to be slapped in the face with its own stupidity. When even the aspiring Prime Minister is still offering empty insights into how women use abortion ‘as a matter of convenience’, one of the more satisfying options pro-choice activists have at their disposal is humour. Because if I had to pinpoint what it was I loved most about my two abortions, I’d have to say the convenience factor just narrowly nudged out in front of the ritual public shaming I received as a result of admitting to them.
Abortion is not typically a topic with which people are allowed to show flippancy. Instead, women are expected to bend and scrape and apologise for their reproductive transgressions. To refer to them in hushed tones as ‘the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make’ while their eyes take on the glassy moistness of tears uncried. And while there are a proportion of women who do feel great anguish over their abortions (not least of all because everyone's reasons are different; some relate more to unviable foetuses than unwanted children, or financial distress, or an existing state of domestic abuse - the weird thing about women is that we aren't all the same as each other), a great many also feel nothing other than relief. To have to pretend otherwise only compounds the idea that abortions aren't a private matter between a woman and her own conscience, but something she needs to atone for. One abortion might be treated with leniency. More than one shows carelessness, a sign that a woman needs to have her reproductive autonomy privileges revoked until she can learn how to keep her legs shut. I like to call this ‘being put back on your L-plates’. The ‘L’ stands for Loose, and helpfully indicates to the rest of the world that you need someone else more responsible to supervise your vagina-car for awhile.
Jokes about abortion still make people very uncomfortable and I won’t even pretend to be surprised. Even though people bend over backwards to defend jokes that actually target the powerless and the oppressed (Seth MacFarlane's recent hosting gig at the Oscars comes to mind), people seem to shy away from abortion jokes as if they lie somewhere beyond the black stump of good taste. If you’re a woman who’s had an abortion, you are generally only allowed to discuss it if you stick to the three cardinal caveats of ending a pregnancy: contrition, apology and regret. Announcing on Twitter that you’re off to the local abortion drive-through to get a quick D & C, or that you only have two more stamps on your loyalty card before you get a free evacuation and spa package doesn’t exactly fall into any of these categories.
But then, neither of these fall into the category of how abortions are actually experienced either. And that’s why subversive jokes about abortion can be so empowering - not just for the women who have had them but for all people who push back against a social code that tells women they have a responsibility to either justify their reproductive choices or ignore their own wishes altogether.
Contrary to what Tony Abbott and similar think, abortion isn’t a matter of convenience. There is no “drive-through” or abortion factory that women can just turn up to. There are no cocktails, no loyalty cards, no quick visits followed by a knees-up on the town and a do-it-all-again. While the result of an abortion might be relief, the process of acquiring one is emotionally exhausting, scary and tedious in its duration.
To even qualify for an abortion in the different judicial sectors of Australia (and for the purposes of this piece, I’ll refer strictly to first trimester surgical terminations) you are required to get confirmation of pregnancy from a doctor. For most people, this will involve waiting for at least a few days after suspicions of pregnancy were first aroused, which, for many, translates to emotionally torturous time spent pregnant against your will. Once your doctor confirms your pregnancy, you’ll need to wait for your appointment with whichever provider you’ve secured to perform your termination. Again, time spent pregnant against your will. (NB: In Queensland and NSW, it's still a criminal offence to have an abortion although doctors will still issue referrals. Until that legal barrier is removed, women's fight for reproductive autonomy in Australia won't be complete.)
On the day of your termination, you'll be lucky to turn up to a clinic that doesn't have protestors outside harassing patients and compounding an already traumatic activity. We've been fortunate in Australia to not have quite the same level of violence directed at abortion providers as they do in a country like America - but we still attract a proportion of people who think nothing of hounding a woman or a doctor for providing an essential service. You know what? If you care about children so much, why don't you go and volunteer for the Red Cross School Breakfast Program and take care of some kids who actually exist instead of harassing patients and the blessed doctors who provide them with choice?
Before your termination, your provider will perform an ultrasound the results of which you are legally entitled to refuse to witness. You’ll then be given a pill that stimulates contraction of the uterus to aid with the D and C. If you’re lucky (and most of us in Australia will be, thanks to our socialised health care system), you’ll receive a general or local anaesthetic which helps to ease the potential physical and psychological side effects of the termination. When you wake up, you’ll be taken into a recovery room, given a blanket and a biscuit and (hopefully) treated with some tenderness and kindness. In all likelihood, one of the most dominant emotions you’ll experience is relief.
This characterised both of my abortions. So when I hear people talk about convenience, ease and a cavalier attitude to terminations, I can’t help but roll my eyes. Nobody else gets to decide for you how you should feel about your abortion. But because we’re always told that they’re simultaneously the hardest thing a woman will ever choose AND that when she does choose it she’s being lazy, convenient and selfish, the only thing we can do is ridicule those stereotypes until they go away.
We can never hope to elevate the status of women’s lives over foetal cells to people determined to disavow abortion rights. So it’s probably about time we stop pandering to their rules of engagement, and instead expose it all for the comedic circus that it is. If that means mock-earnestly crowdsourcing Twitter for the best post-abortion party g-strings around, or celebrating an RU486 fiesta, or off-handedly remarking that you have to nip out on your lunch break to get a quick D&C (“they’re just so convenient these days!”) then more power to you.
Clementine Ford will be one of the panelists participating in a live discussion of Rape Culture at the All About Women Festival on April 7. For more information and to get your ticket, visit The Sydney Opera House.