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MIA: "Every woman deserves this choice."

Mia Freedman.

As awkward moments go, it was brief yet intense.

A few months ago, I went with my daughter’s class on an excursion to the Botanical Gardens as one of the parent-helpers. As part of our tour,  an indigenous woman spoke to us about the traditional way many of the plants in the gardens were used by her ancestors.

As dozens of excitable 7-year-olds, teachers and parent helpers sat in a big circle on the grass with our indigenous guide in the centre, she explained how certain leaves, roots, seeds, nuts, flowers, fruits and berries were once used to treat a variety of ailments. Everything from fever to skin conditions.

“And this plant was used by the women to control the number of children they had” she explained.

“How interesting!” exclaimed someone who may or may not have been me. “So, you mean it’s like a natural form of contraception?”

Our guide immediately looked a bit uncomfortable and chose her words carefully before replying.

“Ah, not contraception exactly, no. It was something a woman would take so she wouldn’t be pregnant anymore.”

Ohhhhhh. I see.

With supreme control, I managed to refrain from asking further questions about the abortion plant as the other mothers and teachers blinked and smiled nervously. The girls didn’t miss a beat and neither did our guide who continued her talk seamlessly.

My point is this. Abortion is not new.

In fact, it’s as old as pregnancy. Ever since humans first began to reproduce, women have sought ways to control the process. We’ve always wanted a say in the number of children we have and when we have them.

Spanish protestors

And yet, on December 20, 2013 Spain’s government approved draft legislation that will make abortions illegal except in incredibly limited circumstances such as rape, incest or grave risks to the mother’s physical or mental health. A malformed foetus will no longer be a reason to legally terminate.

So well done Spain. Really. Congratulations for taking us back decades by making abortion illegal.

Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon said of the new laws, “Life that has been conceived and has not been born incarnates a fundamental value.” He further said that the laws would defend “both of the protection of life of the unborn and of women’s rights” and would “act always in the interests of the woman”. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s People’s Party has an absolute majority in parliament – and are expected to pass the laws.

Coupled with the draconian repeal of abortion rights in many American states recently, a disturbing global pattern is emerging.  Our ability to control our fertility and decide if and when we have a baby is being wound back and in some cases, taken away entirely.

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Hasn’t this battle been fought and won? Isn’t it a basic tenet of civilisation that a woman must be able to control her fertility if she’s going to be an active participant in her own life?

As feminist Caitlin Moran writes in her Times column this week:

Caitlin Moran

Of the 40 million abortions worldwide every year, half happen in countries where it is legal. The other half happen anyway – illegally. Unsafely. Of the 20 million women who abort illegally, 47,000 die. Whether it is legal or not, across the world and throughout time, women abort.

The simplicity of why women seek an abortion is devastating: they feel they cannot look after a child. Cannot. I assure any anti-abortionist that they may disregard the sneaking feeling that 40 million women a year have abortions recklessly – that it is done with the same selfish giddiness as binge-drinking or twerking, and is therefore to be discouraged by the high-minded, for the greater good of society.

A woman who is so convinced that she would be a bad parent that she is prepared to take a pill and bleed for four days, or else find herself with her legs in stirrups, has made a very serious decision about what is both good for her and society.

Well duh. One of my favourite definitions of feminism is this: Do you have a vagina and do you wish to be in charge of it? Congratulations, you’re a feminist.

The same can be said of pregnancy. Even if you don’t identify as a feminist, you’d be aghast at the thought of having no choice about when, if and how many times you have babies. Right?

And historically, there are good reasons why we’ve always wanted this choice. For thousands of years, there was a high chance you’d die during childbirth, the tragedy of which would be amplified if you had other young children depending on you for their survival. Even when you didn’t die, it could mean financial destitution. It still can. Women who are pregnant or raising small children are often unable to work and the impact of this can be devastating.

Pro-life protest in the US last year

Then there’s the absolute basic truth of this: some pregnancies are simply not wanted. Seeing those two blue lines on the stick can constrict your heart when you know you cannot give a baby what it needs. Not at that point in time. Maybe not ever. Not everyone is capable of giving a child the physical, emotional and financial security they need. Some women are barely able to look after themselves and they know it. They might be addicted to drugs. They might be in a violent or abusive relationship. Or they might just be stretched to their absolute limit in any number of ways.

Which is why I’ve never understood people who want to restrict access to abortion. When you talk about forcing women to have babies they don’t want, how do you measure success? In the increased number of children who are abused and neglected? The increased number of women relying on emergency support services and charity? The increased numbers of homeless women and children? The increased number of divorces and family breakdowns? The increased number of women with mental illnesses? The increased number of suicides and incidents of self harm? The increased number of neglected, troubled kids who grow up to be damaged adults?

Because that is precisely what occurs when you try to stop women from being able to decide if, when and how many times she gives birth.

For Spanish women, their right to seek a legal abortion is about to be taken away. And for any man – and yes these legislators are so often middle aged and elderly men – who believe that will stop women from trying to control her fertility and the number of children she has, you clearly have rocks in your head. And your heart.