Abortion Humour

Arj Barker, Colin Hay and Rebel Wilson on <i>Can of Worms</i>.

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

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. 

78 comments

  • Funny, just yesterday a couple of guy friends asked me if I think it's a bad idea for them to include an abortion joke in a script they were writing. My answer was, "... I wouldn't go there. With a ten foot pole. You'll alienate your female audience."

    Mainly because I know some women really are traumatised by it, or at least uncomfortable. Not that they "should" be or that I personally want them to be, some just are and they won't appreciate cheap jokes about such a difficult experience. And like joking about someone's disability, it feels pretty insensitive to make light of a subject that many find both intensely personal, and quite the opposite of funny.

    I love Rebel Wilson - but did you seriously say that she first joked about abortion, then about slut-shaming? Wasn't there just an article on this site, encouraging women to *stop* slut-shaming each other? Rebel's a funny lass, she shouldn't have to stoop to the same tired, old, misogynistic jokes, I'm a bit disappointed to hear that's where she went with this.

    Surely there's a line between expecting women to grovel and self-flagellate about abortion, and expecting them to laugh it off like it ain't nothin' but a thang.

    This whole thing reminds me of the Chaser boys and their "make a realistic wish" sketch. Sure, humour is equal-opportunity and "everything is fair game" but that doesn't preclude having a heart and exercising a bit of discretion around very sensitive subjects.

    Commenter
    Red Pony
    Date and time
    March 11, 2013, 9:15AM
    • Somehow I think if Rebel's joke had been told by a man the reaction wouldn't have been laughter.

      I think you gave your mates the right advice i.e. to steer clear of the abortion jokes.

      For me, until reading this article I never knew about the steps required up to an abortion and also what happens once you're there. (I knew you couldn't just walk in and get, well, aborted)

      But having said that it just makes me even more certain that abortion, at the end of the day, should be the pregnant woman's choice and while of course she can take advice/guidance from doctors/partner/family at the end of the day its up to her to do what she needs to do and there shouldn't be any shame or guilt in making that decision.

      Commenter
      Adrian
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 11, 2013, 9:59AM
    • Women who write and make abortion jokes is one thing; for a guy to do it, is probably career suicide. It's like men making rape jokes. With Sarah Silverman, it's funny; with Tosh O, it was headline news.

      Commenter
      Jace
      Date and time
      March 11, 2013, 10:39AM
    • "More importantly, defending women’s right to choose whatever they like doesn’t mean other women have a duty to agree with those choices or even respect them." -Clementine Ford, December 18, 2012 - 7:38AM

      I do not respect your choice to have two abortions and then act proud of it.

      Commenter
      Sarah
      Date and time
      March 11, 2013, 12:06PM
    • Sarah, I think you're mistaking absence of shame for active pride. And if comedy can help people understand that women don't have to feel shamed or traumatised after terminating a pregnancy, and that there is nothing wrong with them if they don't, then I say let's all laugh it up.

      Commenter
      Josie
      Location
      Surry Hills
      Date and time
      March 11, 2013, 12:47PM
    • @ Sarah If it wasnt for those two abortions you probably wouldnt be reading this article right now and wouldnt have been given the opportunity to feel all superior by casting judgement. Why the bloody hell shouldnt women feel proud of taking control of their lives? As another woman an unwanted pregnancy could happen to you so why would you not feel proud of someone who stands up in public and makes your potential future experience less stigmatised?

      Commenter
      Rachael
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 11, 2013, 1:07PM
    • As is your right Sarah.

      Commenter
      Clementine Ford
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      March 11, 2013, 2:20PM
    • Clementine, thank-you for sharing your story. Fortunately I never had to go down that road, but I was prepared to do so, if I did fall pregnant. The issue about "reproductive choice" is that women are autonomous beings with brains; we are not incubators, or sexual slaves. For too many of the "tools" who want to stop women having an abortion, life ends after birth. They do absolutely NOTHING to assist the women after the birth, and then compound it by calling them sluts. You only have to look at how the Catholic Church treated single mothers, and orphans, in the 50s; abuse was rife. Sarah, you don't like abortion, then don't have one. Maybe you can get the churches to fund a safe, 100% effective, contraceptive, convince all the men out there to respect women as equals, develop a cure for all severe deformities before birth, and plow their enormous wealth into ensuring children aren't brought up in poverty; then you might be able to significantly reduce the abortion rate.

      Commenter
      Weareallindividuals
      Date and time
      March 11, 2013, 4:03PM
  • Nup. Nope, don't think so. Just because you felt nothing doesn't mean others felt the same way. Some women enjoy rape fantasy does that make it ok to joke about rape? I think for some who might have very much wanted a child but circumstances were not right, it is a fairly difficult, emotional experience. Maybe test out your jokes on them first and see how they feel. I think empathy and respect might be a good place to start.

    Commenter
    Melissa
    Date and time
    March 11, 2013, 9:51AM
    • I have to agree.

      Joking about Abortion is going to be seen as flippant and unrespecting of those same women whose reproductive rights we are trying to defend. If Ms Ford wants to joke with her friends about abortions - more power to her. But she would do well to listen to the experiences of other women and take their feelings into account.

      Commenter
      Deb DeGood
      Date and time
      March 11, 2013, 10:54AM

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