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.