Recently my partner and I had the uncomfortable experience of waiting for a late arrival of the menstrual kind. As we counted the nervous days that passed beyond my period’s due date, we discussed our options.
Well, for us, there was only one. We’re a new couple in our mid-twenties; we don’t even live together. We looked at our bank accounts: him a postgraduate university student, me a self-employed freelancer. There was no room for a child in our lives at that time.
Lucky for us, we live in Victoria, one of few Australian states where abortion is both legal and reasonably easily accessible to most people. (And, doubly lucky, my period arrived the day after we had that fateful discussion.)
But for many Australians, the choice to terminate a pregnancy is made more difficult by confounding state-by-state laws, inaccessible services and swirling misinformation about abortion that reduces understanding and options for women.
So, what are the facts about abortion in Australia?
Myth: Abortion is legal in every Australian state
“Well, it’s a complex question,” says Dr Kathleen McNamee, Medical Director of Family Planning Victoria. “You can get an abortion in every Australian state, but in some states it’s still in the crimes code.”
In fact, In New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia, abortion has not yet been decriminalised; and in Queensland abortion is only lawful “to prevent serious danger to the woman’s physical or mental health”.
Last month in Tasmania, the territory’s only major surgical abortion clinic has been forced to close. This has left few affordable and accessible options for women in Tasmania who are seeking a surgical termination without crossing state lines – although abortion is legal in that territory.
So, although Dr McNamee explains “if you meet certain criteria, you can actually have the abortion, even if it’s in the Crimes Act”, if you are considering an abortion, be sure to check the laws in your state before weighing up your options.
Myth: To be pro-choice is to be pro-abortion
The debate around abortion is often divided into two categories: “pro-choice” and “pro-life”. Many believe those who are pro-choice are only supportive of women’s rights to obtain an abortion. This is a common misconception, explains Mel Armstrong, an Australian reproductive rights activist.
“Women choose abortions for so many complex reasons, which are deeply personal and always thoroughly considered beforehand,” says Armstrong. “It’s less about being pro-abortion, and more about proactively supporting women’s reproductive rights.”
“Abortion might not be something everyone supports or chooses, but women should be able to choose the best option for their circumstances.”
Dr McNamee agrees, explaining that equivocating pro-choice and pro-abortion is “incorrect”. “We really want people to make the decision that’s best for them, and make sure they’ve got the options,” she says.
Myth: Having an abortion impacts on women’s fertility
Anti-abortion protesters go to great lengths to convince vulnerable young women that their fertility will be adversely affected by abortion procedures.
This kind of misinformation is so dangerous, safe-access zones have been established outside many abortion clinics in states such as Victoria and Tasmania to prevent the spread of these myths.
“While extremely rarely an individual will have a complication from an abortion that could cause fertility problems,” says Dr McNamee, “there are no studies that link previous abortions to a decreased chance of fertility.”
“And, really,” she continues, “we would say you’d be more likely to have complications that could affect your fertility from giving birth than from having an abortion.”
Myth: Abortion is available in any hospital
As with decriminalisation laws, access to abortions in public hospitals varies greatly state by state. In South Australia (where abortion remains in the Crimes Act) and the Northern Territory, for example, abortions are primarily accessed in public hospitals.
However, in Victoria “there is very, extremely limited public hospital availability for abortion,” says Dr McNamee, with most done by private clinic. “Mostly it’s restricted people who are socially disadvantaged. There’s a few scattered areas where they’re performed but really it depends on the staff at the hospital and the distribution of funding.”
Myth: Reducing access to abortion reduces the rate of abortion
The struggle to maintain abortion rights across the globe often butts up against a dangerous misconception: that reducing access to abortions will reduce the rate at which abortion occurs.
“There is no evidence of that at all, no,” says Dr McNamee. In fact there is plenty of evidence to suggest that blocking access to abortions does nothing to change the rate of abortion procedures at all.
Blocking access simply reduces people’s safe access to the procedure, and often increases the risk of injury and death from poorly performed and self-inflicted abortions by desperate women with few other avenues to exercise their reproductive rights.
Myth: Most women regret having an abortion
More than 95 per cent of women surveyed in a US study published in 2015 said they didn’t regret having an abortion and felt that the procedure was the right decision for them.