• “I’ve never met a woman who was taking this decision lightly." (Blend Images/Getty Images)Source: Blend Images/Getty Images
Camila*, a Sydney-based nurse, describes what it's really like to work at an abortion clinic. She also asks Australians to look beyond the hype to understand the diversity of women who access termination services.
Oliver Jacques

9 Dec 2016 - 11:33 AM  UPDATED 28 Mar 2017 - 4:23 PM

Camila* recoiled the day she saw a policeman handcuff a gaunt woman soon after she’d had an abortion at the clinic, her place of work. The woman – a prison inmate impregnated during a conjugal visit – was about to be escorted back to her jail cell.

“Some clients make you feel so much sadder than others,” says Camila, a nurse who works in the recovery room at an accredited private abortion clinic in Sydney.

Her main duty is to monitor women – who may be teary, shaken or relieved – during the one hour they are required to stay in the clinic following the procedure.

“I’ve become more feminist since taking up this job. You realise women often get burdened with the tough stuff in life,” she says.

The worst part of her position, the nurse comments, is seeing women who arrive and leave alone: that tugs at her emotions.

“I would say three-quarters of the time the male partner is there. But other women, often from disadvantaged backgrounds, have to catch the train home by themselves after what can be a traumatic procedure. I feel like going with them.”

“I’ve become more feminist since taking up this job. You realise women often get burdened with the tough stuff in life."

Camila says her job is satisfying enough but working in an abortion clinic was not her first choice of employment, especially given its controversial nature.

She explains that before she migrated to Australia from South America in 2011, she was a qualified nurse. However, she narrowly failed the English language test required to become a fully registered nurse in Australia. That means she’s restricted in the types of duties she can perform, making it hard to obtain permanent full-time employment. So she’s had to piece together her living on three insecure, part-time roles. She also works in aged care.

Camila tells SBS she also dreads getting the ‘what do you do?’ question at parties, so she responds simply saying that she works in a clinic. If pushed, she reveals that it’s a contraceptive clinic: only if interrogated does she announce the ‘a’-word.

“I don't like bringing up my work, but if I do people are usually complimentary, except my mum. She is staunchly Catholic and does not like to hear about it.”

What does the law say?

To-date, there remains much discussion by anti-abortion rights and pro-abortion rights campaigners about whether abortion should be legal or remain, in many cases, a criminal act.

Abortion laws are determined by state governments, so regulation currently varies by jurisdiction

According to media reports out today, Northern Territory Health Minister Natasha Fyles has made it clear that she plans to make abortion legal in the territory. Consultation on changes to pregnancy laws has begun and will close late January 2017 with draft legislation expected to follow early next year.

Last month, the Queensland state parliament postponed voting on a motion to remove abortion from the criminal code. That means abortion will continue to be illegal in Queensland for now, with debate on crucial reforms set to be held in 2017. 

Abortion in the United States is legal. However, individual states can regulate or restrict which cases are legal and which are considered illegal.

This week in the USA, lawmakers in Ohio passed a bill that could make abortions illegal in the state if a fetal heartbeat is detected. This could be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. According to CNN, the “heartbeat bill” does not make exemptions for cases of rape or incest. The bill does not include exceptions for cases of rape or incest, but it does allow abortions if the mother’s life is at risk. 

“I think any unwanted pregnancy can be a mental health risk."

Back at Camila's workplace in Sydney, however, women aren't entitled to abortion on demand. That's because the practice is illegal in NSW, prohibited by the Crimes Act 1900 unless a woman’s doctor finds that her pregnancy poses a “serious danger” her life or physical or mental health.

According to Family Planning NSW, doctors can also take economic and social factors into consideration when deeming an abortion appropriate and lawful. The risks of the abortion should also not outweigh the danger to be averted.

Camila looks surprised when I tell her abortion is mostly illegal in NSW. 

“Our clinic has never said no to a woman requesting an abortion within that timeframe, as long as it’s within the first 20 weeks,” she says, recalling her personal experiences dealing with clients.

“I think any unwanted pregnancy can be a mental health risk."

Camila explains that despite common assumptions about pregnancy terminations, there’s certainly no real ‘type’ of woman who gets an abortion. Each case is different and ages, cultures and reasons are varied.

“I have seen stylish hijab-clad women, 40-something singles and disabled women accompanied by caseworkers,” she says.  

The stereotypical pregnant teenager seeking an abortion is also a rare client at her clinic. She says it’s more common for her see women in their late 20s or 30s, who already with kids but are unable to handle the responsibility of having another. But, again, she stresses that the client base is diverse.

Among the more unusual cases was a woman who had an Intra Uterine Device inside her for almost a decade, not knowing that it needed be replaced after five years. There was also the unlucky 38-year-old divorcee, who said her pregnancy was the result of her first sexual encounter in years.

Camila urges people not to judge her clients but instead understand that each woman and reason is individual. 

"You should consider not only what she has to go through, but also the future of the unwanted child.

“I’ve never met a woman who was taking this decision lightly." 


*Names and minor details have been changed to protect identities.

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