May 2019

Arts & Letters

The desperate, secretive drama: ‘Choice Words’ edited by Louise Swinn

By Kate Cole-Adams

Personal stories consider questions of choice, legality and stigma surrounding abortion

“I’m a confident, educated and able woman. Yet, I’m sitting here feeling beyond vulnerable; I’m feeling less of a person. I’m feeling invisible. I’m feeling alone. I’m feeling ashamed.”

Many of us will already know the name Angela Williamson. Or at least we know what she did last year, and what was then done to her. Williamson made headlines when she was sacked from a senior job with Cricket Australia for using her personal Twitter account to criticise the Tasmanian Liberal state government for its abortion (and other) policies after she was forced to travel to the mainland to terminate a pregnancy. While abortion in the state is technically legal, the closure of Tasmania’s last private abortion clinic in early 2018 – on top of tight restrictions on the procedure within the public system – leaves an unsettling gap between theory and access.

Little of this is covered in Williamson’s essay in Choice Words: A collection of writing about abortion (Allen & Unwin; $29.99). Instead, Williamson takes us on an intensely personal tour of her efforts to get an abortion in Tasmania: her confusion about where to even begin; the discovery that her pregnancy is further advanced than she supposed; the dawning realisation that there is no facility in her home state that can now help her; and her reluctant decision to leave her children and partner behind and travel to Melbourne for the procedure. At each thwarted step the panic builds, the urgency increases, and the costs accumulate (more than $4000 all up, she calculates, including travel). And all the time her foetus keeps growing.

Her story is visceral and angry, sad, intimate and at times darkly comic. Like one of those dreams where you keep missing trains.

It scarcely needs saying that Choice Words is a determinedly partisan offering. Even in Australia where abortion is now legal in all but one state, public debate, such as it is, remains polarised. From the book’s cover – embossed white on demure pink, the “O”s in the title bisected by deep red lines evoking those of a home pregnancy test – to the announcement that proceeds from sales will help women in hardship access abortion care, we are left in no doubt as to its intent. It makes the list of 34 contributors on the front (writers, journalists, activists, doctors, academics) a statement in itself. Editor Louise Swinn’s inclusion of two male authors reminds us that this is an issue that affects and engages all of us. But mainly and aptly these are the voices of women.

The stories, essays, poems and polemics within fall largely along a continuum that extends from personal accounts of undergoing an abortion to the historical, legal, political, financial and practical constraints within which those abortions take place. That’s a lot of ground to cover. I confess to picking up the book prepared for an experience more instructive than enjoyable. Yet right from the opening essay – Claudia Karvan’s short, heartfelt thank-you letter to “all the men and women who made that procedure possible” – this collection has huge momentum, urgency and purpose.

Choice Words’ political and legal context is sketched in a foreword by deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek, who in 2013, as federal minister for health, added the so-called abortion pill RU486 to Australia’s Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. While Plibersek marks this as an achievement, she also points out that abortion in Australia remains out of reach for many. Laws governing abortion vary bewilderingly from state to state. Despite most Australians (more than 80 per cent, she says) supporting a woman’s right to choose whether or not to continue with a pregnancy, and despite last year’s legislation decriminalising abortion in Queensland, Plibersek writes that abortion remains a crime for more than four million Australian women: in New South Wales it still comes under the Crimes Act 1900. And, even when legal, it is often unaffordable and/or unavailable, particularly for those in regional and rural areas.

A deeper, darker thread running through Choice Words is the impact of stigma.

Despite many contributors asserting their right to decide what happens in and to their own bodies – and some pungent observations about men’s roles in creating unwanted pregnancies – there are also flashes of corrosive self-blame. “How fucking stupid am I?” asks the then 17-year-old Karvan as she flips through the Yellow Pages looking for an abortion clinic. Emily Maguire writes of her young self: “Look at her, this smart girl who’s done something so stupid.”

Several writers explore the ways in which, in the absence of any useful discussion of the topic at home or school, popular culture shaped their early attitudes towards abortion (and, by extension, women’s sexuality). A “desperate, secretive drama,” writes Jess Scully on the lessons she absorbed from the film Dirty Dancing, “that, if it didn’t kill you, would leave you forever scarred and tainted.”

The Catholic Church is singled out as a potent source of such scarring and tainting. The 1984 American “documentary” The Silent Scream, which deployed the emerging science of ultrasound imaging to supposedly depict an abortion “from the ‘victim’s’ point of view”, was apparently widely shown in Australian Catholic schools. In her essay on the film’s lingering impact, Monica Dux notes that, despite its “ghoulish” claims and lack of scientific rigour, the film helped shape the contemporary abortion debate. It was also, she writes, “highly successful in traumatising generations of Catholic school children. Myself included. Even though I’d never even seen it.”

About a third of the pieces in Choice Words describe personal experiences of abortion. Most of these abortions, while sometimes difficult to navigate, were legal. But Anne Summers’ poignant account of her pregnancy as a teenager in the ’60s (first published as part of a 1999 memoir) is a window onto a world at once terrifyingly recent and for most Australians comfortably distant. Having tried jumping off tables and swilling gin in a too-hot bath, and after lying to her parents, scraping together 60 pounds and travelling from Adelaide to Melbourne, the young Summers found herself on a city corner waiting for a doctor she’d never met to pick her up and drive her to a secret destination. What followed – a botched abortion, pain, weeks of bleeding – might have ended in a coroner’s court report. That it didn’t was partly luck and partly the kindness of another unknown doctor.

The perils of illegal abortion are a recurrent theme. (Shirley Barrett’s examination of the North Sydney Morgue register 1881–1908 includes this small, grim offering: “19 June 1904: Ellen Prendergast, 27, domestic servant, ‘the foetus of a child found amongst her blood-stained clothing’ ”.) But it is easy to forget how relatively recent some of this history is. At the time of her own experience, says Summers, up to 10 women in Australia were dying each year from self-administered or otherwise illegal abortions. “I did not know this at the time,” she writes, “but I doubt that it would have lessened my resolve.”

This point is also raised by several younger contributors. Maguire finds parallels in her predicament to that of a wolf she watches on a nature documentary chewing off its own leg to escape a steel trap. While grateful for the fact that abortion in Australia …

… today is (sort of) legal and that organising it is, with the help of the Yellow Pages, a shopping centre phone booth and a pocket full of change, simple enough. But I know – know in my marrow, in a way I’ve never known anything before – that I’d do it anyway, anyhow. I would, if it came to it, die trying.

I was well into the book before it fully sunk in that, while the focus is on abortion, the fundamental concern is with choice. Specifically, who gets to make that choice when it comes to women’s wombs: the bearers of those wombs or the society within which those wombs bleed and/or breed? Jane Gleeson-White writes in her richly textured essay:

Our wombs are not terra nullius. They are not blank tracts for others to write their laws upon. Every womb on this earth is enfolded in a person with their own unique life and story – and the decisions we make for our wombs must be governed by our lives and our stories alone.

Not all the essays deal directly with abortion. Brooke Davis’s tender ode to the clitoris is a meditation on female pleasure. Tara June Winch’s small and beautiful letter to her teenage daughter conjures a future in which the young woman is connected, embodied, autonomous: “I want you to always remember that you have permission to be in control of your body, before and now and always.”

But one of the points the book makes is that this “permission” cannot be taken for granted. In the US, 13 states have already passed or prepared legislation that would limit or outlaw abortion in the event that the increasingly conservative Supreme Court one day overturns Roe v Wade, its 1973 ruling enshrining women’s right to abortion without interference from the states.

The quality of the writing in Choice Words varies but much of it is nonetheless compelling. Ellena Savage’s interrogation of the concepts of autonomy, agency and choice is a highlight. Maxine Beneba Clarke challenges white assumptions in her poem Weight. The collection also provides a wealth of eye-opening information, including an analysis by obstetrician and gynaecologist Caroline de Costa of the failures in education and training that still leave most of the region’s newly minted obstetricians and gynaecologists with “little or no direct knowledge” of the theory or practice of abortion care.

Perhaps most importantly, Choice Words provides a rare glimpse into the minds and bodies of women who every day make one of our society’s most contested and personal decisions.

How representative these perspectives are is difficult to gauge. Some contributors are abortion rights activists or advocates. Some have already spoken publicly about their own abortions. While their overwhelming attitude is one of relief, some also acknowledge feelings of shame or sadness or doubt. I would have been interested to see these feelings explored in a little more depth. In the charged atmosphere encasing the public debate, the stories of women whose responses to their own abortions include ambivalence or regret tend to be drawn into a pro-life narrative by default.

The reality is that, while many Australian women choose to terminate pregnancies (a recent study shows around one in six will have had an abortion by their mid 30s), most will not speak publicly about it. Some not even privately. As Angela Williamson’s Tasmanian experience shows, the consequences can be swift and harsh.

In this light, those 34 names listed on the book’s front cover also represent an act of courage. In offering up their knowledge and experiences, the contributors provide a manual of sorts for those seeking information and insights, and hopefully a means to open up this difficult but necessary conversation.

Kate Cole-Adams

Kate Cole-Adams is the author of Anaesthesia: The Gift of Oblivion and the Mystery of Consciousness.

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