One of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s final acts while in office, was to sign off on cabinet approval for adding the abortion drug RU486 to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. This will decrease the cost of the drug from approximately $800, to as little as $12.
This decision has massive implications for women across the nation but particularly those living in rural communities, where accessing an abortion can be difficult logistically.
But not everyone is happy about this development. Already we have conservative commentators bandying about phrases like ‘abortion on demand’. Discussion about women’s reproductive rights in Australia is on the agenda once again, emotions are running high and it’s a debate that is fraught with complications.
Discussing women’s reproductive rights can be hard. Whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, reasoned conversations about abortion and reproductive health services can quickly deteriorate into an angry quarrelling. Or worse, finishing with “Well, I’m entitled to my opinion”. As if that opinion gives someone licence to judge another woman’s decisions.
Australian women need to be able to stand up for their rights – and to this end, need to be able to talk about their rights. Sometimes loudly. Melanie Poole, a Parliamentary Advocacy Coordinator at CARE Australia, shared these tips with Mamamia for how to handle debates about reproductive rights.
1. Before you begin: Decide whether the person you are talking to is persuadable – or if there is a persuadable audience listening to the exchange. If they are adamantly anti-choice and do not want to listen to reason, and there is no audience, then entering in any debate is generally a DON’T – it is not worth your time.
2. DON’T: Get into a debate about when life begins.
If the person you’re talking with is concerned about questions such as when foetuses can feel pain, when the heartbeat begins etc, don’t argue about the science. People are entitled to their views about when life begins and there is no clear answer to this question.
Note that the question is not about when life begins, but about a woman’s ability to make decisions about her own body, mental and physical wellbeing, and capacity for motherhood.
3. DO: State that you respect everyone’s right to their private views about when life begins. However, this doesn’t mean you can force your views onto others.
You might ask them how they would feel if Jehovah’s Witnesses, who deeply oppose blood transfusions for religious reasons, demanded that non- Jehovah’s Witnesses die rather than have blood transfusions? You may feel that you would prioritise a foetus over your own life, health and wellbeing – it is your right to make that decision. But other women have a right to make their own decisions too.
4. DO: Clarify some science that most people do not know about. It is important to educate yourself about the science so that you can do this where appropriate.
If somebody is genuinely open to learning, you may want to note that anti-choice activists frequently use misleading images of cut-up foetuses that were aborted late term. In reality, the vast majority of abortions are performed under 12 weeks. At five weeks the foetus is similar in size to a grain of rice. Be careful in picking your audience for these arguments but it is important to be aware that the vast majority of people have never been exposed to the actual reality of abortion.
5. DO: Use the proper scientific terms.
A foetus is not a baby. It is not an unborn child. It is a foetus. In the first eight weeks it is not a foetus, it is an embryo.
6. DO: Point out that there are more abortions performed in countries where abortion is illegal than in countries where it is legal. Abortion rates are also always higher when contraceptive access is restricted.
7. DON’T: Let people talk about women who have abortions as though they are ‘other’, or ‘immoral’ (/ ‘doing it for convenience and lifestyle’ / are irresponsible.) This includes avoiding statements such as “well I wouldn’t have one but…”
8. DO: Remind people that 1 in 3 Australian women will have an abortion in her lifetime. Are 1 in 3 Australian women evil? How do any of us know what situation we could find ourselves in? None of us can really be sure of what we would do until we have faced that decision. And if you did have to face that decision, wouldn’t you want it to be yours to make?
9. Do the MATH: As Leslie Cannold points out, the average Australian woman will cycle almost 900 times over 32 years of fertility. It is actually amazing that two out of three Australian women manage to avoid an unintended pregnancy that requires an abortion. The reason that Australian women can do this is because they can access birth control, something which many anti-choice advocates oppose – even though more abortions result from denial of access.
10. DO: Point out that it takes both a woman and a man to make a pregnancy but when an unwanted pregnancy occurs, it is always the woman who is made to feel responsible and who is judged by people who have no idea of her circumstances. Remind people that the number of late term abortions is miniscule – 21 week terminations and over make up less than 2% of overall abortions in America. Note the KEY REASONS why women seek late term abortions – these include:
- The women not being a woman at all but a girl aged 11 to 15.
- The fact that the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest.
- Psychosocial indicators – which take in women who are victims of domestic violence and women with intellectual disabilities, psychiatric conditions such as paranoid schizophrenia and suicidal depression, heroin and alcohol addiction.
- The viability of the foetus (i.e. it does not have a chance at living beyond a very short period of time, sometimes hours, or it has such serious disabilities or deformities that it would live a life of pain and suffering.)
- Women who had planned to continue the pregnancy until they learnt an existing child or their husband had cancer
- Women who have been delayed by medical incompetence (like failures to diagnose pregnancy) or obstructed by ignorant or anti-choice doctors who wrongly advise that abortion is illegal or that they are too far gone.
Do really think that it would be good for a child to be born into the circumstances listed above?
The crux of the matter is that, nobody is ‘pro abortion’. Pro-choice advocates believe that abortion should be safe, rare and legal. The best way to reduce abortions is to make sure that women have access to contraception and to safe abortion when they need it.
RU486 has been available to women in over 50 countries – some of these countries for the past 25 years. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has said recently he would not interfere in any RU486 decision, but it is worth remembering that when Abbott was the Minister for Health he blocked Australian women’s access to the drug. Tony Abbott may well become Australia’s Prime Minister.
Women’s access to sexual and reproductive health services is essential to a woman’s bodily autonomy. To equality. And it’s important that women know how to talk about their rights.
Melanie Poole is the Parliamentary Advocacy Coordinator at CARE Australia. Passionate about advocating for women’s empowerment and reproductive rights, Melanie is also co-founder and board member of the youth-led advocacy organisation ‘Vocal Majority’, which campaigns on reproductive rights.