International Women’s Day: A Comment on Abortion and Female Autonomy

Today is International Women’s Day. Although we have achieved much in the fight for equality of the sexes, there are also many areas of contemporary society in which we still have a long way to go. Abortion is one of those areas. Far too many countries still impose Draconian laws on abortion, denying women the right to autonomy over their own bodies, their health and their reproductive liberties.

In Chile, for example, abortion is illegal with no exception, meaning that a woman cannot terminate a pregnancy under ANY circumstances. Not even if she was raped or if her life depends on it. This law was introduced in 1989 under Pinochet’s military dictatorship. It was argued that, due to advances in medicine, it is no longer required to terminate a pregnancy in order to preserve a woman’s life. Abortion carries prison terms for the mother and anyone trying to assist her. To date, challenges to this law have been unsuccessful. Needless to say, many, especially high-profile upper class men, still firmly support the laws which ban abortions in all instances. For example, in 2013, an 11 year old girl became pregnant after being raped by her mother’s partner. The then President, Sebastián Piñera, praised the girl’s “depth and maturity” for deciding to take the pregnancy to term.

In the Western world, where we consider ourselves progressive with women’s rights, there are still many nations and states which impose onerous laws on abortion. Last year we learned that in Ireland, where abortion laws are extremely restrictive, a clinically dead woman was being kept alive against the wishes of her family in order to use her body as an incubator for her unborn child.

In my home state of NSW, Australia, abortion is still defined under the Criminal Act. A pregnancy can be terminated if a healthcare professional deems it necessary after thoroughly considering the women’s socio-economic status, and the potential effects of carrying the pregnancy to full term on their mental and physical health. This is an incredibly ill-defined and grey area of law, which puts women and physicians at risk of criminal persecution. Not only that, but it denies women control over their own bodies by forcing them to defend their choice to terminate a pregnancy.

Abortion law in NSW seems to be going backwards, or at an unsatisfactory standstill to say the least. Just last year, a dangerously slippery bill “Zoe’s Law” was passed through the lower house, which would have given personhood to foetuses at 20 weeks or from 400g. Of course, this was a bill predominately pushed by a few high-profile, male political figures seeking to control the bodily liberties of women, including the Christian Democrat, Fred Nile. Separating the legal status of a foetus from the other carrying it could have serious repercussions on a woman’s reproductive rights. In the US similar laws have deprived woman of basic civil liberties through forced medical interventions or arrests. One example is the appalling case of Laura Pemberton who was forced to have a caesarean against her will. Doctors sought a court order to have her forcibly removed from her home where she was in the process of giving birth vaginally because they were concerned with the risk to her unborn child since she had previously had a caesarean. A sheriff went to her home, arrested her, strapped her legs together and took her to hospital where the procedure was performed without her consent and without the state affording her any legal counsel. She later sued for the violation of her civil rights, but the court ruled that the state’s concern for the foetus outweighed Laura’s rights under various Amendments. She has since given birth vaginally to 3 more children, shedding doubts on the initial concerns of the doctors. Cases like this demonstrate how introducing laws, such “Zoe’s Law”, which give personhood to foetuses, is a slippery slope potentially ending up with women as second class citizens, stripped of their bodily liberties.

To contrast all this negativity, I would like to acknowledge some of the progress made in terms of abortion laws on the international stage. The UN issued a report in 2011 effectively demanding that member states legalise abortion, and has been continually pressuring countries with less progressive laws to change them because they infringe on women’s rights. In 2012 South America, home to 5 of the 7 countries in the world where abortion is illegal with no exception, saw Uruguay legalise abortion upon request under the government led by progressive president José Mujica. Further north, abortion has been legal upon request in Mexico City since 2007 and in Cuba since 1965. That’s more liberal than the laws we have in NSW!

In Australia, some states such as Tasmania, have recognised the importance of a woman’s right to autonomy over her health and have legalised abortion on request. Privacy zones around clinics have been established to prevent women seeking abortions from being harassed by anti-abortion protesters. Back to Chile, the current President Michelle Bachelet has sent a bill to legislature which, if approved, would decimalise abortion in cases of rape, fatal foetal illnesses or where the mother’s life was in danger.

In 2015, women should be given the same liberties over their health, their bodies and their choices as men. Abortion laws and how they dictate what a woman can and can’t do to her own body, shape not only the extent of control over our reproductive rights, but how we view the autonomy of women in society as a whole. A world where the fate of a woman’s body is in the hands of a few, high-profile upper class men, is a world where gender inequality and female oppression remain.

My body my choice.

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The story of Quillagua: How mining destroyed this little desert oasis

Quillagua is a small oasis in the heart of the driest part of the Atacama desert. The Loa River that feeds through this town is the only flowing river for hundreds of kilometres. Until the 1980s Quillagua was an agricultural town with several hundred people living there. The townspeople prospered, as this was the only place suitable for agriculture in the area.

However, today agriculture is forbidden, abandoned farms and equipment lie rusting, falling apart, and only about 60 people remain in the town.

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Walking through the town I passed two men drinking on the side of the road, and they began to speak with me. Seeing I was foreign one of them started to tell me about his life and the town when there was agriculture; a period he simply referred to as “before”. He told me of how happy everyone was, how the town thrived, that people gathered together in the streets to eat and celebrate regularly. You could see him really light up when he talked about it.

He told me how, now, everything’s different. He was crying when he told me how “the company” changed everything. People began to get sick. Then people started dying. This man, a stranger in the streets of Quillagua, fell apart, sobbing as he described how someone he loved collapsed right where we were standing. How he had to carry her lifeless body away…

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In the 80s a government company called Codelco accidentally contaminated the Loa River with arsenic, upstream from Quillagua, poisoning the water. The company knew this was happening, but they kept it a secret, not wanting to take responsibility and absorb the cost of a clean up. The unsuspecting townspeople continued to drink the water and use it for agriculture. Soon enough, people began to fall ill, develop cancer and die. The contamination source was discovered and the government was forced to admit fault. Agriculture and water use from the river was banned. The company gave meagre compensation to the affected people, but no punishment was ever dealt to those responsible.

Arsenic levels remain high in the water and surrounding soils today. There are techniques to remove the poison, but Codelco, the top global producer of copper in Chile, claims the cost is too great.

Because for a mining company, even a government owned one, profit always comes first. Even if you have to kill an entire town in the process.

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