'If I said we should treat motherhood the same as abortion, you would call me a freak.'

If I were to suggest we treat motherhood in similar way to how we treat abortion, you would consider me a eugenic, misogynistic freak. Women are trusted when they say they desire motherhood and want children but mistrusted if they say they can’t be a mother.

If the choice of motherhood were patrolled and scrutinised similarly to the choice of anti-motherhood, Australians would be appalled. Imagine if motherhood were criminalised as abortion is in Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory; limited to those women who had undergone mandatory motherhood counselling as in Queensland and New South Wales; got the tick of approval by a minimum of two doctors as in the Northern Territory, Victoria and South Australia or a panel in Western Australia; and limited to only those women who had the social and economic means to arrange and pay for motherhood, then it would be a mad world.

Australian abortion laws

A mish-mash of laws.

In Australia access to abortion is controlled by law and its handmaiden medicine. There is a mish-mash of laws of varying public health quality that essentially say to Australian women – ‘you can’t be trusted to know whether you should be a mother or not –and you have to meet this criteria.’ The people provided with the power to bestow motherhood (or not), are doctors.

Abortion and law reform.

The abortion laws around Australia are in various stages of laborious reform. Thankfully they do reform. The next law for a make-over is the Northern Territory Medical Services Act which is being debated in parliament this year. But why do we need any laws to regulate access to abortion? Nearly fifty years ago Justice Menhennitt transformed abortion law to prevent women from septic death and medical exploitation. The days of corrupt police, backyard abortionists and sexual double standards are long gone aren’t they? What if it were a conversation free of legal interference between a woman and her doctor as it is in Canada, which found that abortion is a constitutional right and there is no need of legal definitions or clarifications.

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Suitable for motherhood?

If potential mothers were to be treated in the same way as women who didn’t want to be mothers, they would need to fit into the prescribed categories of suitable motherhood as defined by law and medicine. Laws and medical examinations would ensure that women were deemed not too crazy to bear children, consented to and understood all the risks, trials and tribulations of motherhood.

Picture if on desiring motherhood a woman had to first find a doctor who would ‘allow’ her to get pregnant. She might have to go to two or three doctors who believed that she was capable of handling that task and who would then refer her to specialist services. She would be asked if she had considered the full weight and responsibility of motherhood. She would be asked about the potential father and his suitability; her means for providing for the potential child; and her ability to be a mother would be assessed.

Australian abortion laws

She might have to go to two or three doctors who believed that she was capable of handling that task and who would then refer her to specialist services. (Image via iStock)

She might encounter doctors who held conscientious objections to motherhood, who felt conflicted in their medical opinions and duty of care to the unborn. She might encounter doctors who earnestly believed that motherhood was against their religion and that it was somehow distasteful to even discuss it with her. She would have to walk past anti-motherhood protestors who shoved placards of fat, cute babies in her face. The protesters would shout “Mother! Mother!” at her and she might cry. Nurses would apologise her because the rabble had a right talk about motherhood and enlighten her of their opinions.


She would be mandated to seek counselling to be really sure she was ready for motherhood, that she could cope with her decision and that nobody else was forcing their decision on her. She might be asked to read books about birth or look at pictures of babies to be really sure she wanted one. She might have to watch a caesarean section to see if she was up for it. She would be offered options like delaying motherhood until the time was right - for example freezing her eggs. She would be patronised and asked if she had any regrets or guilt or insecurities about impeding motherhood because motherhood is a big decision – life changing.

This clinical parody is how we treat women who a consider abortion. We patronise, counsel and send them to various experts and gatekeepers. If women can be trusted to become mothers, then why can’t they be trusted to know that they are not suitable mothers at particular times in their lives? Because of absurd Australian abortion laws. This is not to say that doctors and counsellors don’t support women to make complex decisions, they do, but my point is that it should not be written into law. Some women are minors when they become pregnant; they are vulnerable and need support. Some women are ill, drug addicted, or mentally disabled and these women may also need extra assistance and care from guardians. But average Ms Australia should be considered an adult with full rights and abilities to decide whether motherhood or abortion is suitable for her.

Australian abortion laws

This clinical parody is how we treat women who a consider abortion. (Image: iStock)

Reproductive autonomy.

Reproductive autonomy means managing one’s body and destiny. It means a woman can decide whether she would like to be a mother or not, how many times she would like to be a mother, and when she would like to become a mother. It’s a significant idea because motherhood is really important. Nearly everyone thinks that babies are precious and deserve to have mothers who want them and can care for them.

For a woman to be able to control the timing and spacing of her pregnancies it requires decision-making power; self-efficacy; ability to communicate; and equitable gender-roles. Not all of these are within the individual’s remit as they are set within relationships, family, community, society and the legal system. Domestic violence for example limits reproductive autonomy. All of this impacts the ability to control reproductive destiny.

Australian abortion laws

Author Suzanne Belton, Charles Darwin University (Image: Supplied).

We sometimes forget that motherhood is not a willing choice for all women but can be coerced by families, sexual partners, church groups or wider society. The levels of coercion can be subtle to extreme. Ideally women should freely and willingly become mothers when it suited them. When a woman declines motherhood and considers abortion, she uses her reproductive autonomy.

Australian abortion laws discount women’s reproductive autonomy. Laws suggest that women cannot decide for themselves. Because women are not really trusted to make abortion decisions, Australia continues to make laws that force them to visit doctors who remain the gatekeepers of abortion but paradoxically not motherhood.

Associate Professor Suzanne Belton is a medical anthropologist at Charles Darwin University. She is currently working with WHAT RU4 NT? to reform the Northern Territory law that regulates termination of pregnancy. The Medical Services Act enacted 44 years ago is being reformed this year in the Northern Territory.

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