Could this happen here?

Dr. Kermit Gosnell.

Dr. Kermit Gosnell. Photo: ABC news

In what can only be described as an horrific abuse of women and the law, an unlicensed medical practitioner is on trial in the United States for running an illegal abortion clinic in which untrained interns were allowed to anaesthetise patients and feral cats wandered the halls.

Dr Kermit Gosnell is facing eight counts of murder: seven for foetuses delivered alive, and one for a patient who died as a result of his "treatment".

The media has been suspiciously silent on the Gosnell case, probably because it can't help but inflame anti-abortion rhetoric and be wielded as evidence of abortion's fundamental inhumanity and evil.


Photo: Silvia Sala

But stripped of their emotive influence, the facts once exposed point very much to the need for ongoing free, safe and legal abortion rights for all women. As this article points out, the majority of Gosnell's patients were poor, African-American women with few options.


The scarcity of abortion clinics in Philadelphia, not to mention the abundance of protesters at the clinics that do exist, were additional factors that led desperate, frightened women to expose themselves to Gosnell's malpractice and has resulted in at least one of them dying.

Abortion law is one of the most divisive political hot buttons in the US, a country in which the Christian right have been gaining even more political power in recent years.

Some years ago, politicians in South Dakota proposed legislation that would severely restrict abortion rights. Despite being endorsed by South Dakotan governor Mike Rounds, the ballot on the legislation ultimately failed.

Even the policymakers opposed to abortion felt it went too far in its refusal to make exceptions for women and girls whose pregnancies had resulted from rape or incest, or situations in which continuing the pregnancy posed an immediate medical threat to the life of the mother.

But then again, it almost certainly wasn't expected to succeed. It was mounted as a direct challenge to the Supreme Court's 1973 ruling of Roe vs Wade, the landmark case that delivered American women the right to have legal and safe abortions, and medical practitioners the right to provide them without the threat of imprisonment.

Conservative states have spent the past 40 years trying to find the wiggle room in the ruling. Many have succeeded, and the conservative era of governance empowered by George W. Bush's presidency has led to states across America finding new and more underhanded ways to limit women's access to abortion.

Here are just some of the methods being employed. The issuing of a transvaginal ultrasound is now legal in Virginia and the subject of proposed legislation in Michigan. In Michigan, the bill requires the “performance of a diagnostic ultrasound examination of the foetus at least two hours before an abortion is performed”.

The bill also asserts: “The performance of a diagnostic ultrasound examination of the foetus further protects the interests of the woman seeking an abortion by assessing the viability of the foetus and confirming the approximate gestational age of the foetus, as this information is necessary in order to determine appropriate medical care for the woman seeking an abortion.”

Abortion is a procedure with a myriad motivations, one of which may be pregnancy as the result of rape. Creating legislation that forces women to undergo an unnecessary invasion so that opponents can "humanise" the foetus and make her feel so guilty she changes her mind is a vile abuse of power. Yet now that Virginia has paved the way, more states will follow Michigan.

In the past two years, Governor Rick Perry and the Texas legislature has opted to reject federal health funding as a means of denying necessary healthcare (including abortions) to Texan women. Why do such a thing? Well, to accept the funding would have meant directing part of it to Planned Parenthood in accordance with federal law.

Although it is illegal for PP to direct any of this federal funding into the less than 3 per cent of abortion services they provide, the organisation is commonly misrepresented by conservatives as an abortion factory.

In fact, PP dedicates 35 per cent of its services to providing women with contraception. Given conservatives are traditionally uncomfortable with preventing pregnancy as well as ending it, these figures probably mean little to them.

In 2011 South Dakota proposed legislation that would make the prevention of harm to a foetus a "justifiable homicide", in effect making it legal to kill abortion providers. And just a few weeks ago, North Dakota passed the most regressive abortion reform in the country. Governor Jack Dalrymple signed into law the so-called "Heartbeat" bill, dictating that no abortion be allowed once a heartbeat has been detected.

This typically occurs around the six week mark. Given many women might not discover they are pregnant until on or around this time - and even if they do abortion tends to not be a same-day outing - the bill effectively makes it impossible for most women to access reproductive rights that are enshrined in American federal law.

It's a no-exceptions form of legislation, meaning it applies even to pregnancies that occurred as a result of rape or incest and to those that are medically unviable.

You might wonder why the state of American reproductive law reform is of relevance to us in Australia. After all, abortion is legal here. Right? Wrong. Abortion laws around the country vary, but it still sits in the criminal code in both Queensland and NSW. (For a better breakdown, check out the Children By Choice factsheet here. Legislation is being proposed in Tasmania to decriminalise abortion and bring it more into line with Victoria's abortion laws.

The lack of knowledge around competing legislations makes it more difficult for women to know exactly what their rights are when it comes to reproductive autonomy. For example, I have heard anecdotal evidence from at least three people regarding chemists demanding personal information in order to provide the morning after pill. It is not a legal requirement for them to access this information, and you are well within your rights to inform them of this.

We often hear that abortion rights in Australia are safe, and that conservative governance would have little chance of threatening rights that are essential and have been hard won. But with a Tony Abbott government looming, it's vital that we begin to ask questions of our potential political representatives.

If elected as Prime Minister, Abbott is probably going to need to rely on the support of independent senators, such as like the notoriously anti abortion John Madigan. Considering our reproductive rights vary across the board and are actually shakier than most people realise, such a state of affairs presents serious concerns for women.

In the relentless pursuit of undermining feminist concerns, abortion rights are sometimes described as the bugbear of the privileged white middle class. But reproductive autonomy is essential to all women's liberation, and denying it presents incrementally more harmful outcomes to those women who experience less and less privilege. It wasn't white, middle class women being butchered in Gosnell's sham clinic, but the forgotten, ignored women who make up the poor and disenfranchised.

As Mike Leigh's sombre 2004 drama Vera Drake showed us, the privileged few will always know who to go to in order to seek a way out, and will almost always be protected from the legal ramifications of outlawed abortion. It's the powerless who will, through desperate means, put themselves at risk of imprisonment or even death to reassert control over their bodies.

Witnessing the slow but steady eradication of reproductive freedom in America's various legislatures should provide a stark reminder to us here in Australia. If we really want to save lives, we have to enable all women to first save their own.