"One third of women will undergo abortion in their lifetime; it is a vital, normal, and healthy procedure."
'Safe, legal and rare.' It's the mantra we often hear in discourse about abortion. Tony Abbott has said it, as have others such as Hillary Clinton, and US President Barack Obama. A rhetoric adopted to progress the legalisation of abortion, the inclusion of 'rare' ostensibly serves to make a sticky topic more palatable.
For many centuries worldwide, women healers provided abortions and trained other women to do so. It wasn't until 1803 that Britain passed its first anti-abortion laws. Subsequently, abortion was driven underground and the female wisdom of herbal abortifacients and safer processes was lost. Prior to changes in Australian legislation in the late 1960s, countless women died or were horrifically injured following 'backyard' abortions. Across the globe today, one woman dies every 8 minutes from unsafe abortion.
Whilst today's medically-safe abortions are an improvement from the concoctions and procedures of centuries past, the fact remains that for as long as women have been getting pregnant, women have been experiencing—and ending—unwanted pregnancies. So abortion should be safe and legal—absolutely. But what about 'rare'?
Well, here's the thing: Humans have sex—not just for reproduction! Humans have sex for pleasure all the time. And one of the results of sex is pregnancy. There are 7.1 billion people on the planet—23.13 million of those in Australia—procreating at the impressive rate of about four births per second. In Australia, thirty-four babies are born every hour.
Truly 'rare' termination of pregnancy would only be possible if humans limited sex to the sole purpose of reproduction. In that case, unplanned pregnancies would be virtually eliminated, and abortion would be necessary only in instances of maternal or foetal health risk.
But because we humans are gregarious and sexual creatures, even despite contraceptive efforts to the contrary, pregnancy is a frequent occurrence. Individual circumstances—social, economic, and health amongst myriad other reasons—will sometimes dictate that a pregnancy cannot continue.
Condoms have advanced significantly since our ancestors donned sheaths of animal intestine, and despite initial resistance in the mid-20th century the contraceptive pill is now a staple and rather boring addition to a woman's daily routine. Vasectomy is discussed with back-slapping pride. These advances signify our desire to have—and our understanding of the importance of—control over fertility and reproduction.
Moreover, progresses in obstetric medicine mean we can gain early awareness of potential risks to the mother, or to the viability, physical formation or health of the foetus. For some families, the decision to terminate a pregnancy is one of unspeakable heartache.
Medically, abortion is in most cases a simple, low-risk procedure with a high success rate. In fact, a woman is 14 times more likely to die from childbirth than abortion.
After two healthy pregnancies, deep in the chaos of beginning a new career, and with two energetic young children at my feet and a husband regularly working away, I discovered I was pregnant for the third time. Although I felt saddened, frustrated and deeply regretful that I was in that position—I'd rather not have been pregnant at all—my decision to terminate the pregnancy was made with a swift sense of pragmatism. I was not in a place to have a third child. Following a medical abortion, I felt intense relief and gratitude.
Writer Clementine Ford has often spoken openly and positively of her abortions. "For me, the decision was incredibly simple," she says. "I knew I wasn't in a position to properly care for a child. But I also didn't want one … I've never had any regrets and whenever I have cause to think about it, I feel nothing but relief … When and if I choose to have a child, that child will be welcomed and loved—and that life will have been made possible precisely because of the choices I've made along the way."
Speaking for the 1 in 3 campaign, a movement that seeks to "end the stigma and shame women are made to feel about abortion", writer Jessica Valenti says, "[W]e often have this hierarchy of good or bad abortions, like the abortion I had in my 30s and after I was a mother was okay and understandable because my life was at risk … but the abortion I had in my 20s when I simply wasn't ready to be a parent is not as excusable … at both points I was doing what was right for me, what was right for my family … I think it's important we start talking about that."
I spoke to Georgina, a 54-year-old mother of three, who describes the abortion of her fifth pregnancy 25 years ago as an intensely difficult decision, but one that was made for the good of her family. "I would not have been able to cope with another child," she said. "I made the choice not to go through with [the pregnancy], because I would have felt alone caring for yet another child."
Sarah, a 31-year-old mother of two, remarked, "Instantly, I knew I would terminate the pregnancy. I was trying to leave an abusive relationship, my youngest child was only six months old and I'd just been diagnosed with a lifelong health condition. There was absolutely no way I could have had another pregnancy at that point, let alone another child."
We are a society that can land a rocket on a comet, splice fish genes into strawberries, and invent cars that reverse park all by themselves; we're people that fight for marriage equality, dig deep during natural disasters and legislate overnight against 'coward punch' violence in the street. And yet our attitudes to the simple procedure of discontinuing a pregnancy remain shrouded in misconception.
One third of women will undergo abortion in their lifetime; it is a vital, normal, and healthy procedure. The beauty of choice means that those who seek to terminate a pregnancy can, and those who would prefer not to, don't have to. So can we shed the stigma and begin to speak positively?
Kim Lock is a mother of two and the author of Peace, Love and Khaki Socks (MidnightSun Publishing). Her second novel is currently under consideration. Twitter: @KimRLock