The Sydney Morning Herald -- Thursday January 5, 2006
The forgotten figures in the abortion debate
By Julia Baird
Fascinating, isn't it, how anti-abortion rhetoric has changed from the rights of the unborn child to the trauma the mother might experience? It's a peculiar shift which seems to seek to destroy a straw woman: the notion that women at worst enjoy, and at best are completely unaffected by, abortions.
In recent months, provoked by the RU486 debate, we have heard much concern from our federal politicians about the destructive effect of abortion on women who choose to terminate a pregnancy. The rumblings appeared to be confirmed on Tuesday with the Herald report of a New Zealand study which found that a group of pregnant women, born in the 1970s, those who had abortions were more likely to be affected by mental illness than those who had not.
The results have been treated warily by those who point to the small sample of women who had abortions in the study, compared to those who did not, and the absence of information about the context which drove them to seek an abortion, as well as that which led to the depression.
As the Herald reporter Ruth Pollard pointed out yesterday, a review of abortion literature (27 articles and 72 studies) conducted by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and published in November, found there "are rarely immediate or lasting negative consequences". While there may be "an association between termination of pregnancy and some adverse mental health markers", they said, "these may reflect pre-existing conditions".
If women do have rotten experiences when having abortions, that should not be used against them, or those who come after them, especially when we do not know why. There is something discomfiting about watching the experiences of largely silent women being manipulated for political purposes. Women should not have to pretend it is a hoot, either.
Germaine Greer may have once claimed to have gaily skipped home after having an abortion in her youth, but she subsequently revealed that while she had later longed for a child, an IUD had made her infertile.
She wrote in 2000: "I still have pregnancy dreams, where I'm a huge domed abdomen floating in the warm shallow sea of my own childhood, waiting with vast joy and confidence for something that will never happen. And my life is full of baby surrogates, animals and birds that need nursing."
Feminists have long acknowledged the potential trauma of abortion - alongside the arguably greater trauma of not having the choice or control over their own bodies. The American feminist Naomi Wolf even argued women should incorporate grief and redemption into the debate about abortion in an attempt to recognise how some women suffer. She was vilified for her belief that we should recognise abortion was a failure - whether "of technology, social support, education, or male and female responsibility" - and that the death of the foetus was a real death.
It's a bitterly fought and complex debate, and it's curious to watch women's mental health become politicised, but not seriously addressed, or even comprehensively researched.
The ethicist Leslie Cannold, the author of The Abortion Myth, says the mostly successful shift in the strategy of the anti-choice movement, from being simply foetal-centred to adding women-centred rhetoric, occurred in the mid-1980s in the US and Australia.
According to the "women-centred post-abortion strategy" logic, fragile women are bullied into abortions by a pro-abortion culture and feminists, and are often seriously damaged by the procedure. This view seems infantilising - either we trust adult women (and men) to make these decisions, or we do not. Let's not allow either the misery, or relief, or myriad experiences of women having abortions to be bandied about to stymie choices.
You can't help but wonder, if we are so intent on protecting women from grief, depression and pain, why we do not concentrate on and allocate substantial resources to those women who are actually having babies? This will do more to reduce abortions than freaking out newly pregnant women in a quandary.
The high incidence of postnatal depression - one in seven women in Australia - is a significant disincentive for many women considering having children. According to the national postnatal depression program run by beyondblue, there has been a serious "lack of national focus and insufficient attention on improving women's mental health before they give birth". Antenatal depression is rarely detected, let alone treated.
We should consider ways of reducing the isolation of new mothers, of improving availability and quality of child care and of encouraging more flexible work practices. We should address the stigma and shame attached to postnatal depression, make sure women's minds as well as bodies are subject to routine checks, that nurses are able to visit them at home, and that early intervention is encouraged for women at high risk. Surely I am not the only one who knows a mother who committed suicide months after her first child was born.
If we are truly intent on reducing the number of abortions and comforting vulnerable women, we must first value motherhood and care for mothers more.