Australia: The State ever eager to demean women with respect to abortion issues
The Tasmanian Times December 2005
Women's autonomy or state control?
JOCELYNNE SCUTT: The state demeans women when it seeks to intervene in the decision whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. Women’s minds and bodies should not be subjected to political maneouvering and the scoring of political points, or arguments based in ideology over health care.
THE abortion debate is never-ending. Impetus has been given to it by the federal Minister for Health’s funding (to the tune of $300,000) organisations that refuse to provide information about pregnancy termination to women who have a right to know, and by the same Minister’s endeavour to continue the ban on medical supply of RU486, the ‘morning after pill’.
In each instance, women’s right to comprehensive health care is denied for ideological reasons.
People are entitled to their ideological beliefs, however, when this interferes with health rights, we have a right to question, and to demand change.
The state demeans women when it seeks to intervene in the decision whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. Women’s minds and bodies should not be subjected to political maneouvering and the scoring of political points, or arguments based in ideology over health care.
Women’s lives are too valuable to be put at the centre of politicking, and too important to be placed at risk whilst ideological debates take precedence.
Since abortion was made a crime, women’s lives, woman’s person, women’s bodies and women’s minds have been the centre of a political struggle for control. This struggle is centred in capacity, rights and respect in particular, a denial to women of capacity, a denial to women of rights, and a denial to women of respect.
The politicking denies women’s capacity to make decisions about ourselves and for ourselves. It denies that women are humanbeings of equal value as men, with equal capacity to make decisions for ourselves. It asserts that ’someone else’ must make decisions for and about women.
Failure of respect for women
Only women have the right.
Policies seeking to deny women access to Medicare for terminations, along with a denial of access to contraception and contraceptive advice because of cost (for example), a failure to make available a range of options, and failure to provide positive contraceptive education programmes, indicate a failure of respect for women. Policies failing to provide proper support for women who make contraceptive choices or who exercise their right to abortion are policies that deny women’s autonomy, and seek to deny women autonomy. Organisations that assert they will provide advice, care and assistance only to women who wish to continue their pregnancies do not provide proper, comprehensive health care and advice. As well, they breach the Disability Discrimination Act 1993 (Cth), through their refusal to assist women who, for health reasons, require a pregnancy termination. The Disability Discrimination Act governs public and private sectors: a government minister who breaches it acts unlawfully, just as a private organisation does.
Ironically, alongside policies that deny women’s right to access abortion skills (whether surgical or through medication), complementary policies have imposed steralisation whether surgical or chemical upon women from minority racial groups, particularly Indigenous Australians. Such policies similarly deny women’s autonomy and seek to deny women autonomy.
Equally contrarily, policies and perspectives can simultaneously exert pressure on women to undergo terminations fr ‘acceptable’ reasons. Here, ever-broadening notions of ‘handicap’ or prospective disability of the putative child can force women to believe that they must end a pregnancy, or forever suffer guilt should the child be born ‘imperfect’. This too denies women’s autonomy and seeks to deny women autonomy.
It is for women to make the ultimate decision, rather than being imposed upon by those who assert they, and only they, know best.
Men are entitled to conscience. However, they have no right to impose their conscience on women, to exercise it against women, nor to take the untenable stand that their exercise of conscience in voting in parliament about women’s bodies, women’s minds, women’s self has any place at all, much less that it should be prioritised over women’s right to make decisions about ourselves. A vote in parliament, whether based in conscience or not, has no relationship to the determination a woman makes as to whether or not she will bear a child.
The time for men to exercise their conscience in the abortion debate is at the time of potential conception. Their responsibility comes at the time they make decisions about where to put or not to put their sperm. Once deposited, it is too late! Any amount of rhetoric and posturing cannot change this.
Treat women with dignity
Men’s responsibility comes when they can make a decision to engage in conduct that may result in a pregnancy, or can decide to engage covered up. Condoms are what the conscientious man should choose, or other forms of contraception if he does not wish to father a child or place a woman in a position where she exercises her decision to undergo pregnancy termination, or continue the pregnancy. Men can choose not to engage in sexual intercourse, rather than seeking to impose their views on women after a child is conceived.
A proper respect for women and women’s lives would ensure the ready availability of contraception and contraceptive advice and education for men (including young men), alongside educational programmes for all men, of all ages, backgrounds and origins, to treat women with dignity and respect. Ultimately, this should develop socio-cultural norms honouring women as autonomous beings.
Any politician, government or parliament, state and federal, failing to provide positive, accessible policies and programs for health and wellbeing of all women (including young women) shows a disrespect for women, negativity towards women and women’s lives, and a failure to comprehend women as human beings entitled to human rights.
Any politician, government or parliament, state and federal, failing to provide positive, accessible policies and programmes which support and affirm women’s right to bear children in optimal circumstances, with proper child and maternal health support, with paid maternity leave, with comprehensive provisions for women to return to the paidworkforce, properly supported, after the birth, shows disrespect for women, disrespect for children, and lack of support for women’s autonomy, women’s rights and children’s rights.
Ultimately, abortion cannot be controlled or dictated by the state or by those who, not being physiologically capable of becoming pregnant, will never have to look to their conscience on the question to terminate a pregnancy or not.
Respect for women means respecting women’s capacity and honouring women’s right to make our decisions about our bodies, our minds, our lives. Respect for women means respecting women’s decision whether or not we will bear a child.
We are told this is about the conscience of parliamentarians, as if pregnant women have no capacity to exercise conscience. Yet what is in issue is the notion that others have the right to exercise their conscience to overrule ours. The right to abortion is a woman’s right. Our conscience is a matter for us.
Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt is a barrister, human rights lawyer, writer and filmmaker. From 1999-2005 she was Tasmania’s first Anti-Discrimination Commissioner.