When I was about 14 years old, my mother gave me a book on feminism – sadly I can't remember what it's called now, and I doubt I still have it. But back then, I thumbed through chapters based on how interesting they were to me – and with it, I remember reading about abortion in depth for the first time.
Abortion was a nebulous concept my mother, who is pro-choice, had explained to me, but not one I'd devoted a lot of thought to. The book outlined a shocking fact: that abortion had been around long before the US's landmark Roe v. Wade, but their illegality made them horrendously unsafe. In the US in 1965, maternal deaths as a result of illegal abortions accounted for 17 per cent of pregnancy and childbirth related deaths. The World Health Organization estimates that 68,000 women die from unsafe abortions every year, primarily in undeveloped countries.
Reading these kinds of statistics was a watershed moment for me. I understood exactly how desperate women were when risking terminating unwanted pregnancies, and how many women would die as a result. It was the first moment in my life I vehemently embraced a feminist doctrine; that all women should have the right to legal and safe abortion, and to deny women that was to deny them their bodily autonomy and, for many, also a death sentence.
Yet while I've always fiercely supported women's reproductive choices, a lot of the realities of what an unwanted pregnancy might mean didn't truly come home to me until I became a mother myself. I have two beautiful children whose pregnancies and births I eagerly awaited, but those pregnancies and births were hell. In my mind I have to draw a line between the babies I love and the process of having them, which was terrifying, painful and endangered my life. This is what all women who are pregnant face: there’s no way of knowing if the pregnancy will be smooth and complication-free, or if she or the fetus will be at risk.
In Australia, it's easy for people who are anti-choice to mouth rote protests to abortion: that a woman could just give her baby up for adoption, that she should accept the consequences of sex and conception (rarely with any mention of the father), that there are many women who are infertile and therefore women who conceive and unwanted child should count their blessings. But the realities of pregnancy and birth are far more complex than these simplified responses.
Firstly, there is a woman's right to bodily autonomy. After my own experiences of being profoundly debilitated by pelvic instability during pregnancy, coupled with dangerous blood loss during birth, I wouldn't wish it on any woman who didn't want it. While Australia's maternal health care is of great quality, a 2003-2005 study showed a maternal death rate of 8.4 per 100,000 of women giving birth – and that increases by two and a half times for women who are of Indigenous or Torres Strait Islander backgrounds.
An excellent description of bodily autonomy and what denying it means comes from activist Paul Zepecki, who highlights the fact that nobody can use your body in any way without your consent, even if you are dead. Denying a woman bodily autonomy during pregnancy essentially gives her less rights than a corpse, and the fetus more rights than any person already born.
Secondly, there are economic factors that people who are anti-choice rarely seem to consider an impact. Pregnancy discrimination is alive and well in Australia, as I well know: I was three months pregnant, starting to show and running to the bathroom with morning sickness when I abruptly lost my job last year. Women are limited in their physical ability when pregnant, need time off work to attend maternal health checks, and most give up work for a period surrounding the birth and recovery – even if they are planning to adopt the child out.
A woman forced to undergo an unwanted pregnancy and birth would face a dire economic impact, possible workplace discrimination, and the inevitable mental health repercussions of enduring a forced pregnancy. If she has children already, who would care for those children during the birth if she had no partner and no support, and might otherwise have chosen a termination?
I wanted my children, which is why I understand and support abortion even more since becoming a mother. The moment I chose to have my first child, I understood that my prospective lifetime income was severely reduced, that I could face potentially dangerous medical complications, and, as the primary caregiver, I would be giving years of my life to my children. I am happy to do that, because it was my choice – but I believe that every woman should have that choice.