The lucky country?

What happens when a little bit of that American anti-abortion zealotry gets transported to Australia?

What happens when a little bit of that American anti-abortion zealotry gets transported to Australia?

When I read about the slow but steady roll-back of a woman’s right to have an abortion in America, I often smugly think about how lucky I am to live in Australia.

In some US states, women are forced to have medically unnecessary scans of their foetus. In others, conservative politicians are trying to pass laws that say if the foetus is too small to show up on normal ultrasound, she must have one that involves penetrating her vagina with the ultrasound machine.

In Mississippi, some “pro-life” bright spark even proposed a law that could have outlawed common forms of birth control, because some birth control can make the uterus inhospitable for a fertilised egg.

Never mind that as many as 20 per cent of known pregnancies end in “spontaneous abortion”, not to mention all the fertilised eggs that naturally never managed to get their hooks into your uterus (so to speak).

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So when you see the many thoughtful comments on my editor Julie’s article this week about Melbourne ethicists who have argued in favour of “post-birth” abortion (a euphemism that doesn’t really hide that they are talking about infanticide) you can’t help thinking it’s good we can at least have a conversation about something many people find abhorrent.

But when it comes to actual abortion rights in Australia, we don’t have it as good as we might imagine.

This article by some Australian psychiatrists sums up the situation well (it was written for psychiatrists asked to assess a woman who wants an abortion, but it’s handy for our purposes as well).

In NSW, for example, you cannot have an abortion unless it is to preserve you from “a serious danger” to your life, or your physical or mental health.

In Queensland, Tasmania and South Australia abortions are still criminal as well, and in the latter two you actually need two doctors to assess you before you are given permission.

This is despite, as the authors of the paper put it, “the prediction of future mental health or illness, even by psychiatrists, is inexact to say the least.”

And let’s not forget the terrifying and humiliating 18 months a young Queensland couple spent on trial before a jury acquitted them of procuring an abortion. They were charged after authorities found the abortion drug commonly known as RU486 during an unrelated search of their house.

Just think about that for second. Abortion is criminal. You, your friend, sister or girlfriend, could find yourself caught up in a criminal case if for some reason you or your doctor doesn’t properly jump through the legal hoops set-up around the procedure. It might not happen often, but it still looms ominously in the background.

The reality is that many women have abortions without their physical or mental health being in danger, yet we keep these old-fashioned laws so politicians don’t have to be brave.

And what happens when a little bit of that American anti-abortion zealotry gets transported to Australia? At the moment Texan-inspired nutters “40 days for life” are protesting outside a Sydney abortion clinic.

Other ongoing protests, such as the rag-tag group at Occupy Sydney, are moved on in dawn raids but these people continue their occupation unabated.

Perhaps it is because despite the vast majority of Australians believing a woman should have the right to get an abortion, we still treat it as a shameful decision, one that needs to be hidden behind closed doors and justified through legal and medical hoops.

We might have it better than in America, but in most of Australia women who want an abortion are still treated like potential criminals.