"I had one too..." an oral history of abortion in South Australia before 1970
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Forward: Abortion in South Australia is restricted by legislation. One of the requirements is that two medical practitioners recommend that a woman should have an abortion if they consider that her physical or mental or social health is at risk. This study grew out of the public debate surrounding a private member's bill introduced in to the Legislative Council in South Australia in February 1988. That bill sought to further restrict access to abortion in several ways, including a requirement that a psychiatrist assess the woman if abortion was required on the grounds of mental health. That bill was narrowly defeated on 31March 1988. Debate surrounding the bill revealed the determination of anti-abortionists to restrict and eventually prohibit abortion in South Australia, based upon a campaign of misinformation. First, they claimed that the numbers of abortion had been climbing since 1980 when in fact the numbers had stabilised at about 4000 per year, a level comparable to the estimated number of abortions prior to legislative reform in 1970. Secondly, they claimed that many women suffered post-abortion trauma when studies all around the world (including one in South Australia) had found that traumatic post-abortion grief is extremely rare, especially when compared to the trauma of unwanted pregnancy and child-bearing, or indeed the trauma of illegal abortion. Thirdly, they argued that abortions were too readily available when a government enquiry (the Furler Report of1986) had found that abortion services were inadequate in both quantity and quality. Since July 1988 there have been no public mid-trimester abortion services in South Australia, and women are now bussed interstate at Health Commission expense to have abortions in private clinics. Rather than an outbreak of abortion, there has been a significant decline in the provision of service. It was in this context that we decided to apply for a Section 16 Health Commission grant to undertake a study of women's experience of abortion in South Australia before the legislation of1970. The women, health workers and police who have told their stories for this study have revealed the deceit, uncertainty, anguish and fears that existed at this time. Their stories also stand as proxy for the voices of the women who cannot speak, those who lost their lives through illegal abortion. It is vital that these experiences are understood, so that future policy decisions and community standards about abortion can be based on truth and compassion. The activists who seek to prohibit abortion claim to be motivated by compassion for the aborted foetus. Yet they ignore or actively oppose contraception, the only effective means of preventing unwanted pregnancy, and their compassion for the foetus is strictly limited with no apparent concern for life after birth. They claim to be concerned to protect women from the alleged emotional consequences of abortion, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that abortion is not traumatic unless it is illegal, or not the woman's own decision. Neither would their solution protect women's morals, as there is no moral virtue where there is no room for decision. As this study goes to press another private member's bill is before the House of Assembly, aimed at stopping the establishment of a separate clinic under the auspices of a hospital. The proposed clinic will circumvent the problems experienced in hospital departments of obstetrics and gynaecology, where anti-abortionists have been successful in destabilising services from within. The proposer justifies the bill on the grounds that clinics are not as safe as hospitals, in spite of the fact that most abortions in Australia are performed in clinics, with safety records which compare favourably with hospital care. This justification is doubly cynical while South Australians are still forced to travel interstate to get mid-trimester abortions in clinics. Abortion is one of the simplest and most common surgical procedures in modem medicine, and has been practised in different forms around the world throughout history. While prohibition of abortion has very little effect on abortion rates, it does result in disastrous increases in abortion-related death and injury, and it is estimated by the World Health Organisation that a half a million women die every year from illegal abortion. Women who have abortions, like women who don't, are spread across every age, race, culture, class, creed, and country. They are the mothers, the nurturers, the workers, the doctors, the politicians, the artists, the famous and the unknown, the survivors of rape and the plain unlucky. Their partners likewise are everywhere. They all require safety, compassion and respect in the life crisis of unwanted pregnancy, and the availability of safe and effective ways of preventing its recurrence. Health care agencies and staff have an obligation to provide quality of care in this as in every other health service. The politicians who believe that their personal moral views on abortion are more important than the consequences of unwanted pregnancy ignore the realities of women's everyday lives. Yet they claim to be protecting women. We hope this study will serve as a reminder to politicians and opponents of abortion that any restrictions to the existing legislation will see a return to those anguished years before 1970.
Published by the Women's Studies Unit, The Flinders University of South Australia, Bedford Park SA 1990. This version is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY).