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- Anne Summers: MPs need to follow public opinion and decriminalise abortion
- Larissa Waters: Australia needs abortion laws for 2016, not 1899
No matter what your personal opinion on abortion may be, one fact remains indisputable: as long as women are called on to perform the bulk of reproductive labour and child-rearing, there will be demand for services that enable the termination of pregnancies. This remains as true today as ever, with a recent study outlining the prevalence and rates of abortion worldwide in countries and regions where it is both legally accessible and legally denied.
When you restrict access to abortion, you make it easier for women to die.
According to the Washington Post, this most recent study (published in The Lancet journal) "represents the most comprehensive analysis ever conducted on the subject [of how abortion rates differ between regions separated by wealth and development]." Lead authored by Gilda Sedgh, a principal research scientist with New York's Guttmacher Institute, the study found an average of 56 million abortions took place annually from 2010 - 2014. This equates to roughly 35 procedures per 1000 women of childbearing age.
Here's where it gets interesting. The authors noted that in countries where abortion is illegal or permitted only to save the life of the pregnant person, rates hovered at around 37 procedures per 1000. But this is essentially no different from the rates found in the 63 countries where abortion is legal - in this grouping, abortion is accessed at a rate of 34 per 1000. The authors strongly concluded from this that "restrictive abortion laws do not limit the number of abortions."
Or, to paraphrase Dr Jo Wainer writing in Lost: Illegal Abortion Stories, the law has never been able to prevent abortions - all it has ever succeeded in doing is changing the manner and safety with which women access those abortions. Basically, if you force desperate women into even more desperate measures, all you'll achieve is an increase in the likelihood of them dying.
In fact, the best way to lower abortion rates is to provide early contraceptive intervention options to women. As reproductive health care workers can attest to, abortion rates remain steady in places where access to adequate contraceptive methods is limited or even illegal. One of the quickest and easiest ways to ensure longevity for infant and maternal health in particular is to give women comprehensive options to control the size of their families. Use (and appropriate education) of contraception in the so-called 'developed world' is almost certainly more responsible for declining abortion rates than the antiquated rhetoric about morality that spews forth from people whose concern for life and vitality ends the moment a baby emerges from the womb. And yet, there are still far too many individuals and organisations around the world who remain determined to prevent women from not only accessing terminations but also from being able to prevent conception in the first place.
These findings have particular resonance for Australia, where reproductive health care law varies from state to state. It is especially pertinent to arguments pushing to remove abortion from the Crimes Act in both Queensland and New South Wales. In fact, it should be a source of great shame and outrage to every thinking person in Australia that we don't have uniform federal legislation ensuring not only the legal access of abortion to everyone capable of becoming pregnant, but also the financial and geographical access. Why should we be ashamed of this? Because, and to beat this drum once more, when you restrict access to abortion, you make it easier for women to die.
Did you know that in the 1930s in Melbourne, long before the Menhennit Ruling of 1969 paved the way for abortion to be first practiced and then decriminalised in Victoria, an entire ward of the Women's Hospital was created to care for the women admitted with sepsis as a result of botched abortions? Many of these women died, and their deaths were long, drawn out and horrendous affairs. The threat of the law did not stop them from seeking intervention then, because the law is incapable of controlling people in desperate situations. The Lancet study not only reinforces this reality, it demonstrates that it is legalisation and not criminalisation that will more profoundly influence the decrease of abortion rates.
Did you also know that childbearing and childbirth poses a greater risk to women's health and mortality (especially in developing regions) than safely performed abortion procedures ever could? In fact, just over 800 women die worldwide every day as a result of complications arising from pregnancy. Arguments citing the supposed risk that terminations pose to women's health aren't just false, they're actually dangerous in their adherence to moral belief systems rather than science.
Ultimately, until medical science progresses to the point where human life can be created and grown in an artificial incubator, abortion will always be a consequence of pregnancy. Childbearing is an industry overwhelmingly dominated by women, and that has been disastrously exploited by the industry of law and legislation that is overwhelmingly dominated by men.
But the numbers don't lie. If women are supported and empowered to control the size of their families, the result is better health outcomes for everyone. Lower maternal mortality rates, lower medical interventions - and yes, lower rates of abortion. It's that simple. It really is. And it's time that all of Australia fell in line.