health

An abortion provider answers every question you've ever had about terminations.

When I talk to Dr. Jane Baird, she tells me the story of a 17-year-old girl she met not too long ago.

The 17-year-old had come into her clinic seeking a safe abortion. She had been sexually assaulted walking home from TAFE one night. With only her mother in-tow, the young girl’s visit was shrouded in secrecy. She was from a Muslim family, and both mother and daughter knew that if her father were to find out, she would no longer be living in their home.

Before I can articulate how much the story hurts my heart, she tells me another one. A young mother-of-two in her early 30s comes to Dr. Baird’s clinic. She too is looking for access to a safe abortion. Some hundreds of kilometres away in another state sits her husband in a chair of a different hospital, receiving chemotherapy for melanoma. Between caring for her husband and looking after her two children, the young mum knows a baby can’t come into the world this way.

Dr. Jane Baird has stories like these two that roll off her tongue. After all, she’s been an abortion provider for 16 years now, working at Marie Stopes in Melbourne, and providing safe abortions for women across the country.

It was only through a chance meeting with a couple of nurses who worked in an abortion clinic themselves that Dr. Baird saw a need for abortion providers across the state.  So she became one of them, making the jump from rural general practice to one of the few doctors in our country who are determined to ensure women of all ages and all backgrounds have access to terminations.

In my conversation with Dr. Baird, I realise two things. Firstly, that her job is one that is crucial for all women across Australia and secondly, that it’s a remarkably thankless job to do.

After all, if she’s sitting next to someone on a plane, does she tell them what she does?

“I’m always apprehensive about it, ” she says. “I keep it vague, often telling people I work in women’s health or day surgery.  I have had some interesting conversations with people when I have told them about the work that I do.

“It’s interesting, the minute I say it, they feel obligated to provide their ethical viewpoint on abortions, as if in telling them what I do, I’m asking them what they think.”

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Dr Jane Baird works at Marie Stopes in Melbourne.

Naturally, it's a career choice that's divisive - pro-life campaigners may be outnumbered by pro-choice, but they can also be louder. It's one thing for someone to disagree with your opinions, but it's entirely different narrative when they are so passionately opposed the one thing you've given 16 years, and full-time work, to.

"I have a reasonably tuned radar, and I can feel my way through people and conversations. I can usually tell the kinds of people who I don't broach abortion with because I just don't see the point of it. I'm not going to change your perspective and I'm not going to waste my breath.

"It's better that I use my time and energy to able to provide people in vulnerable situations with tangible help. We have so much work to do and we have so little abortion providers that it's better for me to just quietly get on with my work."

The details

As someone who hasn't had an abortion, I'm interested in the details. The procedure itself, the pain, the cost. How does it all work?

"We're in a fortunate position in Australia that we have access really good drugs and good health professionals, which makes this process pain free as it possibly can be. We work really hard at not making this any more physically or emotionally challenging than the situation already is.

"The situation is so varying and people's responses are so different. 100 people will all respond so differently so it's really hard to generalise and say it's this amount of painful. Some people experience no discomfort at all, and others will say it's the worst thing they've ever experienced. Some people are really stoic, other express their emotions through pain."

One thing you can be absolute about though, is the cost. It is, by Dr. Baird's own admission, a problem that causes her "huge amounts of distress". In January this year, a study into the cost of abortions found "abortion costs are substantial, increase at later gestations, and are a financial strain for many women."

The Mamamia OutLoud team discuss abortion and the pro-choice vs pro-life debate. Post continues after audio.

If we're going to put figures on it, it becomes blatantly clear that abortions are well outside the realm of affordability. Stupidly so.

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If we're looking at really rough numbers, Dr. Baird says for abortions performed at five to six weeks, the cost sits around $560. Medicare covers about a fifth of that cost. By 15 and 16 weeks, you're looking at a cost of more than $2000, and by 23 weeks that cost can be as huge as $8,500.

"Women get hardly any back from medicare or health insurance for second trimester abortions.

"People are having to come up with that money themselves and it's actually impossible for some people, meaning an abortion for some isn't even an option."

The irony is obvious, and it's little wonder it's an issue that "appalls" Dr. Baird. Women often seek abortions because they can't afford a baby. So, imagine their distress when they can't afford an abortion either. It's important to note, however, that South Australia is more accessible. SA women can access services in the public hospital system, but no other state in our country is as generous.

I'm interested, too, in how women appear after having an abortion. What are their emotions like? Is it sadness, relief, or neither? So much of our rhetoric around abortion is the idea of shame, that women should be ashamed of aborting a baby.

According to Dr. Baird, the biggest emotion is pure relief.

"We get a lot of hugs," she tells me. "A lot of hugs. And a lot of chocolates, too.

"A number of women who come in experience a profound sense of relief.

"The team and myself are here to really to support these woman through this journey so that at the end  of it she can feel that her life is back in control again and she can participate in her life the way she wants to."

Interestingly, in my conversation with Dr. Baird, I realise our public debates about abortions don't focus enough on the why. Why women walk into Dr. Baird's office. Why they need these services. We have the obvious arguments: women should be in control of their own bodies. There's also the idea that if it's not the right time, a woman should be able to make an informed decision as to whether she wants to bring a child into the world.

But often we don't touch on the more heart-stopping, tragic and traumatic reasons women walk into Dr. Baird's clinic at Marie Stopes.

Family violence, she wants me to know, is a huge reason.

"I meet a number of women who come in and say they had a good relationship until now. But the minute they found out they were pregnant, the violence starts. They've come to me because they know this is not the right situation to bring a child into."

Image: iStock.
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A study conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies in 2015 found this to be the case. They found women are at increased risk of experiencing violence from an intimate partner during pregnancy and unintended pregnancy is often an outcome of an existing abusive relationship.

For Dr. Baird, it's a "common thread" she sees among the abortions she performs.

From all reports, there's a lot to be done in the sector. Abortions are far too expensive and there are few places for women to access funding help for abortions. Shamefully, Dr. Baird admits that although the US makes it harder for women to access abortions, when she visited Texas not long ago, she said nearly 40 per cent of women had access to financial help. For a state known for it's conservative values, it's an alarming comparison to make.

However, it's not all bad. In November 2015, the Victorian government passed legislation that prevented anti-abortion protesters from coming within 150 metres of an abortion clinic.

"Since the legislation passed in Melbourne it has made a tremendous difference," Dr. Baird says. "Women feel a lot less threatened and challenged when somebody isn't in their face. It's made a big difference in Victoria and Tasmania but the other states don't have the same laws yet."

You can imagine being a 17-year-old girl already dealing with the trauma of assault, you do not need strangers with white picketed signs telling you to feel shame for not bringing that baby into the world.

Instead, you need someone like Dr. Baird, whose services will ensure you aren't kicked out of home.

And who'll give you a hug at the end of it all.

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