Why abortion legislation matters to this old woman

Why abortion law matters

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!

Responsible care

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’s question

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.

photo Maureen-Helen
Copyright, Maureen Helen 2022

Join the Conversation


  1. I so agree with you. It should be an individual’s right to choose, they and they alone live with the consequences of having an unwanted child or a termination. When the choice is removed, the desperation and despair could drive them into the hands of a back street abortionist.. Surely no one wants a return to that.

    1. Thanks for your support, Sue. I felt anxious when I posted because apart from in a work setting in a women’s hospital I have never been so up front about my opinions about abortion. I think I have more to say, and will write another blog. There are so many appalling consequences when termination of pregnancy is illegal.

  2. Hi Maureen
    A most interesting journey you have traveled in this regard Maureen and you give us interesting insight through your experiences. On a personal level, I was appalled when I heard Rowe V Wade was going to be overturned and that it was going to be up to the states to decide. But yes, it should be a woman’s right to decide on matters of her own body. 100%. Once a developing fetus can survive outside of the womb relatively independently, then that changes the calculation. I dread to think though, of what is going to come next out of the less than supreme court in the US. You are right, its a discussion that has a long way to go. Great topic and your passion on the subject shines through.
    Also enjoyed catching the other day too. I think we could have been there chatting all afternoon…so much ground to catch up on
    Take care and keep up your interesting Blogs Maureen. They are always interesting, and this one in particular

    1. Lovely to spend time with you last week, Tricia. Perhaps we need to catch up more often in phone chats so we don’t have so much to say when we meet!

      I am passionate about the subject of my blog, because I’ve seen so many terrible and agonising consequences when women have been denied the right to terminate a preganancy. To say nothing of the horrors of backyard abortions that we witnessed in the olden days.

      Enjoy your time in the North-West. I know you’ll be working, but you always seem to find such interesting things to do and see while you’re away, and I’m sure this time will be the same. Take care and stay safe. x

  3. What a wonderful post, Maureen – both for your obvious fierce desire to fight injustice, and for your belief in compassion. Reading about Rosemary’s spiritual guidance brought tears to my eyes.

    1. Thank you for such a lovely comment, Fiona. I think the church I grew up in sometimes loses sight of the need to fight for justice and it is the role of ‘ordinary people’ sometimes called the laity, to call out injustice when we see it. I’m pleased my mention of Rosie touched you. I miss her dearly.

      ps I’m not sure where this comment went, but it has just appeared on my screen.

  4. I really found reading this very interesting. There are so many ways to view this subject matter, but no matter ones personal point of view, compassion overrides everything else..

    1. Thank you for your comment, Ann. There is so much to say about the topic of abortion. It rarely a decision that comes without costs to women and often their partners as well.

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