For Women, By Men: Why we still need abortion law reform in NSW
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For Women, By Men: Why we still need abortion law reform in NSW

Issues/Women , Stories/50 , Issues/Healthcare
New South Wales, Australia
11th Sep 2017
For Women, By Men: Why we still need abortion law reform in NSW
“It felt selfish because we are made to believe it is selfish. It made me so angry – a man politicising something they will never have to endure themselves.” Women share their lived experience of exercising their right to choose, despite abortion still being in NSW's criminal code.

It's only early September, but already 2017 is already proving to be a disheartening year for women in New South Wales. We've been the topic of heated debates, had to shout to have our voices heard, been subjugated in our fight for our safety, our mental health and most imperative of all - the right for our freedom of choice when it comes to reproductive rights.

As it stands, abortion is in NSW's criminal code. Women seeking an abortion, the doctors involved and assisting individuals can face criminal charges and up to ten years imprisonment. However, there is a loophole. A legal precedent set in 1971 made financial or social stresses lawful reasons for accessing an abortion in NSW, as well as any effect on a woman's health. Fortunately, this includes mental health - often the element to suffer most when a woman is faced with an unplanned pregnancy.

In 2015, Greens MP Dr Mehreen Faruqi introduced End12, the first ever abortion reform bill that aims to decriminalise abortion and provide safe access zones around clinics. On the 11th of May 2017, the bill was defeated in the state's upper house 25 to 14.

But on the 10th of August, Greens Member for Newtown Jenny Leong provided a glimmer of hope when she successfully passed a motion through the NSW lower house voicing support of women's rights to choose safe, legal abortions, without the fear of facing criminal charges.

The support from communities all over NSW is as a vocal as ever. "The momentum from our End12 campaign continues to grow and will only get bigger. The Government can't keep refusing to act." Says Dr Faruqi. Indeed, the streets of Sydney - especially university campuses - are teeming with women who have had abortion impact their lives in some way, and who have something to say about it.

"It leaves women's bodies open for debate," says Ellie Holmes, a 23-year-old communications student at UTS. "I'm not pro-life or pro-abortion, but I'm unquestionably pro-choice."

We all saw the men involved in this ruling on the women of New South Wales. In this article, I'm showing you the women. The women who have lived it, who have suffered, who have agonised, who all have different stories, different backgrounds, different personalities, and different lives they are leading. Because they cannot be grouped under the same umbrella, to be cast as a majority with one ruling being the right one for all of them. Not one woman is the same, and not one unexpected pregnancy can be judged the same.

It isn't an unreasonable request. The women of NSW aren't asking for anything except to align themselves with the rest of Australia - to move on from criminalising women for choosing their own fates. What's the point of giving us votes or fighting for equal pay when we can't choose the fate of our own bodies?

Just because there are women choose this path, doesn't mean it is an easy one for them to take - it comes with a cost.

It all boils down to choice. The fact women should be able to have the right to choose the sake of her own body, her own life. It's a basic human right.

23-year-old Laurrie Brannigan-Onato was at work when she heard the bill was voted down. She got up from her desk, walked to the ladies' bathrooms, and cried. Just nine months earlier - the irony not lost on her - she had made that heart-wrenching decision to end an unplanned pregnancy. Due to a defective IUD implant, going through a pregnancy would be health risk within itself, but even after the emotional anguish and lingering effects of the decision, she still has to deal with the fact that her choice is still viewed as a criminal action in NSW.

 "There were so many factors that lead to my decision - my fiancé and I were living in a granny flat, he was studying, I wasn't working full-time - it just didn't fit with how I saw the rest of my twenties.

"I didn't know if I would be able to give a child the best life possible - and that isn't fair."

What Laurrie did know is that pregnancy is hard. Morning sickness, aches and pains, heartburn, the emotional rollercoaster. Pain endured to receive a bundle of joy at the end of it. "And I knew that wouldn't be the case for me," she says quietly.

On the day of her procedure, Laurrie received a text message from the clinic telling her to use the back entrance, because there was a group of protesters blocking the front entrance. "I didn't want to be ashamed of it, but I still was. But the truth is, I woke up from the procedure relieved. 

"It felt selfish because we are made to believe it is selfish. It made me so angry - a man politicising something they will never have to endure themselves."

Laurrie's anger made her speak out. Social media is a powerful too, and she used it to reach out to her fellow sufferers. "People who I hadn't spoken to in ten years were contacting me, saying they had been through the same."

"It breaks my heart - we hold onto these ideas that we are to blame, or we have done something wrong."

The main stereotype of a girl requiring an abortion is that of a young, unwed, promiscuous teen, who got herself into a "spot of trouble." Do these men, who have branded all women seeking abortion under a common label, realise the main demographic of females seeking abortions are well-educated and employed, often with existing children? Perhaps their sisters, or even their wives?

Amelia* was struggling to leave an abusive relationship when she discovered she was four weeks pregnant. "It wasn't just him who was controlling, but his family," she says. "If I had a child, it would be a pawn, and I would always fear it would be subjected to the same twisted upbringing that lead him to think it's okay to hurt people weaker than he is."

Amelia was fortunate that her own mother also saw an abortion as Amelia's only chance of safety. "She drove me to the procedure and held my hand, and after I recovered, I got on a plane to Melbourne and never looked back."

It isn't just women choosing abortion who are being shamed for their decisions. Women everywhere, not only in NSW, are still receiving backlash for making their own choices and standing firm to their beliefs, even if it is classed as the politically correct one. 25-year-old Art Director Veronika Forsythe is no stranger to the prejudice that comes with sticking to her belief - that while she supports women's right for an abortion, it wasn't something she would choose for herself.

Her first boyfriend - a man she lived with, travelled with, and who planned on proposing before the relationship fell apart - made his stance on the topic of abortion abundantly clear -a convenient, quick fix should any 'accidents' occur. "He truly believed that (if I needed one) I would be fine, because other women in his life were after theirs."

And while she respected his right to 'opt out', Veronika was - and still is - firm she is entirely capable of dealing with the challenges an unpredicted pregnancy may bring. "What I'm not capable of is putting my own needs above others for convenience sake," she says.

"I hope one day I meet someone who admires those traits in me."

But it isn't solely her male partners who have expressed their dismay at her stance. Numerous pro-choice women in her friendship circle - who are aware of her emotional capabilities and firm view on the subject - constantly tell her it's "no biggy" and to just "get on board the abortion train."

"I was fairly certain before I was sexually active I wouldn't ever have an abortion," she says. And while she took all precautions to prevent any accidents, when relationships started getting more serious, it meant a heart-to-heart with her significant other, often resulting in awkward silences and the question: "but why?"

"In the end, I'm a strong-willed woman and no man or woman can influence what's right for me," says Veronika.
Veronika Forsythe
Pictured: Veronika Forsythe

With abortion in New South Wales being a taboo topic, many women are feeling this way - that they would go to any lengths to secure an abortion - and their futures.

Unless abortions are decriminalised in NSW, we are facing a generation of terrified, ill-informed women seeking out clandestine back-door procedures because they believe it's their only option.

This article isn't just about the stories of these women - the circumstances behind the decision that lead them here - but their words, their voices that were muted at the time because they were made to feel shamed - shamed for making the choice that was right for them.

As women, we are made to suffer in silence about subjects that make society (read: men) uncomfortable. Periods. Placenta. Pubic hair. And then we lower into the issues that are rarely spoken of because it isn't theirs to care about - contraception, ovulating, and above all, abortion.

Don't just educate women - teach the boys what they need to know, how to be supportive, what networks are available for them - because it's just as much their baby and their responsibility to see their decision through.

Ellen* from the psychology department of Family Planning NSW, says unexpected pregnancies are often not the fault of the women, and that often it's a result of men being lax in the protection department. "Women need choice, because like any gender, they should be able to choose what happens in their lives." Jo considers abortion just as much pro-life as activists don't, because with the financial, spiritual and emotional hardships unexpected pregnancies can bring isolation and depression.

Annie* rarely speaks of her experiences nursing at an abortion clinic in Surry Hills, but in the fifteen years she's worked there, she has seen women of all ages, race, socioeconomic status, and religion come through the doors, and says it's demeaning and naïve to think that one rule can apply to all of them.

"I've seen girls who have barely hit puberty, raped by family members and terrified beyond comprehensible speech. Middle-aged women who are exhausted and overwhelmed by the children they already have. One girl came in barefoot, poor; she paid for her procedure in coins. She knew that if she couldn't afford shoes, she couldn't afford to grow a healthy life inside her."

As women, we are expected to shoulder the pressure and responsibility for the cluster of cells forming inside us. But if we choose to receive ourselves of that pressure - a choice we have a right to have - it is replaced with guilt and shame. And we are left asking ourselves: how is that fair?

"I had a teenager refuse all pain relief, because she said she deserved it," Annie says. "She said she deserved the pain, and that perhaps it would "teach her a lesson'". In what land are we living that it's okay for a young woman feel she has to punish herself?

Beth Sykes, a 23-year-old nurse, took the right to choose straight into her own hands - twice, with two different outcomes neither of which she has regretted.

"It was the hardest decision I ever made," says Beth. "Four years ago, I was nineteen. My relationship was only weeks old."

Her partner was supportive of abortion, but not necessarily her right to choose.

"He was nice about it -decent about it - but he was definitely pro-abortion. I took it into consideration and in the end, it was something we both agreed on."

Like any woman who is faced with this decision, the thought of keeping the baby did cross her mind. "At the time, the only reason I would go through it was to please my Catholic parents. And that wasn't good enough."

But because of the decision she made, she felt she couldn't tell her parents. "They wouldn't have seen it as my choice to make, they would have seen it as my responsibility," says Beth. "I'm not ashamed of my choice - I just don't feel I need to justify it."

Two years later, at the fault of an ineffective implant, Beth was faced with the same choice. The decision to keep her baby the second time is mainly a result from her mental state after her previous abortion. "It wouldn't have mattered what my partner said, I would have kept the baby, no matter what. I didn't want to go through another abortion"

Her partner wasn't happy at first - "he thought that if I had done it once, I could do it again" - but after she explained how the abortion she had had weighed on her mind, she chose not to put herself through that again.

"The first time I made the decision quite easily. But afterwards I realized, it wasn't as easy as I thought. And I knew it was my choice, but even so, there wasn't any support of that choice," she says.

"I'm so close to my mum - it was horrible not being able to talk to her, because we've been conditioned to feel ashamed."
Beth Sykes
Pictured: Beth Sykes

As someone who exercised her right to choose twice, with different outcomes, Beth uses herself as an example for anyone who finds themselves in the same situation. Any choice that was right for her may not be right for someone else, but it's their judgement and their decision - no one else's.

"I believe people are in all different situations, and need to be able to terminate a pregnancy if they want," she says. 

"Children aren't easy. They are financially and mentally taxing to raise. You have to physically feel it in yourself to get through the next nine months - and the years to come after."

"I don't think a room of men should be able make decisions for women, and young girl. It's a decision a woman and their partner should make together, and only them," she says.

The rejection of the End12 bill is a tragically regressive moment in the history of NSW, the fight for women's freedom of choice, and the state's record on gender equality. Hopefully, Penny Leong's successful motion will be the start of another journey the women of NSW have been fighting for.

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