opinion

"She asked who had an abortion. Half the room – including Tracey and me – put up our hand."

This morning, for an “In Conversation” event at the Sydney Writers Festival, Tracey Spicer and I had a chat about my memoir “Plain Speaking Jane”.

Before we went on stage, Tracey told me she had found a particular passage of my memoir very compelling and she wanted to know if we could discuss it and if we could try a little experiment.

She’d had a brilliant idea and I immediately agreed to it.

The passage she wanted us to discuss was the following. It refers to my experience when contraception failed and I got pregnant in my early twenties.

“I could not go through with the pregnancy. It felt as if it had happened to my body and not to me. This was not because of my anxiety or obsessive neurosis. That didn’t help, certainly, but I’d be lying if I hid behind that as an excuse. If I’d wanted that baby, I’d have gone ahead and had it, mental illness or not. I simply did not want it. My life was finally looking up. I was focused on my career. I was not ready to walk away from it. You can judge me and call it a ‘lifestyle choice’ if you like, but I have no regrets.

I booked a termination as quickly as I could and that was the end of that. Did I feel any grief? Did I feel guilty or ashamed? No, and I never have. We had been responsible. I had been following doctor’s orders. I would much rather have not become pregnant but as I had it had to be dealt with. When I woke up from the anaesthetic and realised I wasn’t pregnant anymore all I felt was overwhelming relief. I could go back to my real life.

Jane Caro and her husband. Image via. Facebook.

Many years later, I was scheduled to appear on Richard Glover’s Monday Political Forum. It is a weekly segment airing as part of his Drive program on ABC Radio 702 in Sydney. I was booked to debate the issues of the day with former NSW LNP Opposition leader John Brogden and the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney the Rev Peter Jensen. Tony Abbott, the then Health Minister in the Howard Federal

Government, was in the middle of a scandal surrounding his son who had been born to a girlfriend and adopted out. It later turned out via DNA testing that the adopted child was not Abbott’s son, but that information was not known by anyone at the time. Abbott had been a very high profile opponent of abortion all his life and, as Health Minister, had recently tried to get the abortion drug RU486 excluded from the Australian market. He had failed largely due to cross party voting by the women in parliament. I knew, therefore, that abortion was likely to be on our list of topics for discussion, particularly considering the presence of Archbishop Jensen. When I opened Richard’s email listing our topics sure enough, abortion led the list. I immediately wondered if I was going to have to talk about my own experiences.

That evening in the studio, when the discussion about abortion started, Jensen was unequivocal in his condemnation. Brogden was less definite but still negative about it as an option. When Richard asked for my opinion, I began by talking about the giant female silence around the topic and how it was a rare sexually active woman who hadn’t wondered with white knuckles whether she would be faced with having to make a decision that wasn’t abstract and theoretical (as it was to the men discussing the topic with me) but real, visceral and life changing.

You can watch Tracey Spicer's TED talk below. Post continues after video. 

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Video via TED

When asked for their responses to my remarks, Brogden shifted a little in his position. Jensen did not move an inch. Abortion was wrong, it was murder etc. Glover turned once more to me and I knew I could not live with myself if I did not break the female silence I had named. I told them I had a fairly typical maternal history for a woman of my age (in my 40s by then, I think). I’d had two children, one miscarriage and an abortion. There was a deathly hush as I explained that abortions weren’t something that happened to some nasty promiscuous bunch of not very nice women, but to all sorts of women for all sorts of reasons. Indeed, I said, it wasn’t that the men discussing the topic with me didn’t know anyone who’d had an abortion, it was just that if women knew you had very negative views on the subject they simply wouldn’t tell you about it. I was also very clear that I did not regret my decision at all. ‘How could I?’ I said, ‘If I’d had that child, I would not have had the two much loved and wanted daughters that I have now.’

The conversation moved on. I think we talked about the Iraq war but I know that Glover finished the show by asking us what our favourite recipes from the 70s were. I chose apricot chicken – the one made with sachets of French onion soup and tinned apricots and sour cream.

Apricot chicken notwithstanding, when I left the studio I was terrified. I wondered if I would get death threats, be picketed or shunned. I walked back to my car waiting for someone to throw something at me. If not a rotten tomato then at least an insult. Nothing happened. On my way home I got a few text messages from friends who’d been listening. They were all very supportive. Many told me about their own abortions (confirming my point rather nicely) but they were my friends, surely it would be different with strangers?

Jane Caro Memoir (Image via. Facebook)

That night I had to attend a P&C meeting at my daughter’s high school. Thank goodness it was a secular public school but even so many parents had very conservative views about life and many very religious families sent their kids to the school – as is their right. It is often the more conservative parents who populate P&Cs. As I arrived, I felt very nervous. The P&C President greeted me with a wide smile.

‘Hi Jane!’ She said, ‘I heard you earlier on Richard Glover, loved that bit about the apricot chicken!’

And that was it. The sum total of the response. Abortion is normal. It’s simply not an issue for most people.”

When we had finished talking. Tracey turned to the audience and asked everyone in the audience who had had an abortion to put up their hand.

According to my publicist who was sitting at the back, fully half the room – including Tracey and me – put up their hand.

Abortion is normal and it should be legal.

This post includes an extract from Jane Caro's excellent new memoir, Plain Speaking Jane (Pan Macmillan, 2015). You can get a copy here

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