Abortion legislation, very much in the news this week, matters to me. I believe women have the right to make decisions about their own bodies and what happens to them. For too long, patriarchal institutions like medicine, the law, the media and religion have dictated to women.
The recent overturning of the Roe vs Wade legislation in the USA on Constitutional grounds makes me sad. Abortion laws in that country are now decided on a state by state basis. This is also the case in Australia where all states allow abortion, but with restrictions.
In the USA, however, some states totally ban abortion. Others make access limited and often time limited and difficult.
Denied the right to terminate a pregnancy where they live, many women in the USA must now travel to another state. Many women who cannot afford to travel may face a dire future.
Abortion and contraception
I am what used to be called a ‘cradle Catholic’, a person born into a Catholic family and who continues to call themselves ‘a Catholic’. The church continues to label abortion ‘a sin’.
Abortion and contraception have long been used to control the behaviour of women. Until 1985 in Australia, a man could rape his wife within the marriage. Until then, society assumed that ‘giving herself in marriage’ meant a woman relinquished all rights to her own body.
When I and other women say we bore many children, a frequent response is a knowing look, and the question, ‘Catholic, then?’ How dare they!
I felt ill a couple of days ago when I read an article, ‘America after Roe vs Wade‘, in Eureka Street. A Jesuit priest. Chris Middleton wrote
I’m very much aware that I’m a celibate male writing about an issue that has unique relationship to women. The implications for legislation around abortion are incredibly complex and challenging.
My shouty question to Chris Middleton, ‘So why do you persist?’
Decision to terminate a pregnancy
The decision to terminate a pregnancy, never easy, causes anguish for many women. Reasons for the decision are always more complex and more traumatic than Chris Middleton could even imagine.
For some people, the trauma continues for the rest of their lives. Women need support not additional barriers in the form of legislation. They do not need decisions made by men.
Men who seem to think they can make controlling decisions about women’s lives are often celibate as in the church. They can head churches and the professions. They often lack empathy. It’s not their body, after all.The profession has a long history of control and misogyny. So does the law and the legislators.
Feminist and proud of it
This comes from the heart of a Second Wave feminist who read Simone de Beauvoir, Anne Summers and Germaine Greer before many readers of this blog were born. I followed up with a post graduate qualification in Women’s Studies and taught family sociology at Curtin University.
The radical Our Bodies Ourselves: Informing and Inspiring Women Across Generations by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective shocked many. First published in 1970 it became our treasured reference. It went on to 40 new editions, the last in 2018.
Early experiences and abortion
For an old Catholic women, I’ve had a remarkable amount of experience that leads me to demand safe abortions. But I’m also a retired nurse and midwife
- From 1955 I worked in a gynaecology ward at Royal Perth hospital three times. That included night duty with another untrained nurse and a stint as staff nurse. Women were admitted following backyard abortions. I smelt their septic bodies, watched at least three die and prepared them for the undertaker. I was seventeen years old.
- As a Catholic trainee midwife in 1959, I had the temerity to refuse to scrub for an abortion. I do not remember details. My punishment included banishment from the theatre. I somehow became a midwife without ever once scrubbing for (or even seeing) a Caesarian Section.
- A twelve-year-old child gave birth to a baby which had resulted from an incestuous attack by her father. No society should tolerate such an event, let alone force a child to give birth to a child.
- During these years, friends of mine became pregnant while unmarried. They ‘relinquished’ their babies to adoptive parents. Their pain remained palpable until they died.
Dawn of understanding, compassion
The dawning of understanding on a very deep level came as I reached late middle age.
- Once again, I worked in a gynaecology ward in a tertiary hospital. By that time, abortion in specific circumstances was legal. I watched with horror as my Catholic colleagues on the wards treated women with lack of respect and disdain. They barely spoke a civil word to these patients. Protected by law, they refused to provide nursing care to vulnerable women.
- I worked for a time as night manager responsible for the nuts and bolts running of the hospital. One night I received a call from a nurse. A woman on her ward had reacted badly to a drug she’d been given to induce a termination. The nurse had tried to engage the medical resident and registrar, both Catholics. Both refused to be involved. The consultant gynaecologist on-call had been to a party. He was drunk when I roused him. The Medical Director finally provided the medical assistance required. The woman lived. I hope sorted out the mess in his staff but the matter was hushed up. Disgrace!
Patients deserve and should expect compassionate care. Their decisions, behaviour or expected outcomes should be irrelevant. The behaviour of my nursing and medical colleagues prompted rage, which led to serious soul-searching on my part.
As a Catholic nurse I needed urgently to sort out my conscience and what I really believed.
My friend, the late Rosemary Keenan, RN, MSc, also a Catholic, supported my decision-making. In future I would do everything I could to ensure that patients for whom I was responsible would be treated with dignity and care. They’d receive kindness and compassion as well as the best care and treatment possible.
Rosemary asked the question, ‘What would Jesus do in this situation?’
The answer included words like love, compassion, healing, suspension of judgement. How could I have been so blind?
That’s another reason for my defence of women’s right to safe abortion.
Much more to say
There’s much more I want to write about this topic. My passion is far from spent. Being old does not prevent us from stong opinions and loud voices. We need to shout out when we see injustice.