Criminalising abortion hurts women who don't want one, too

The media has leapt on the story of "Miss X", the woman who became pregnant after a brief relationship with NRL player Bryce Cartwright, and was allegedly paid $50,000 to pressure her into having an abortion. No matter what your stance on a woman's right to choose, it must be a terribly difficult situation for the woman involved. Of course, the usual suspects of the "pro life" brigade have jumped on the story, eager to use it to push their line that abortion harms women and must be stopped. Now, I actually happen to agree with Ms Devine here; no woman should have to suffer this, being pressured into having an abortion she doesn't want. But criminalising abortion means there's no way to prevent it.

As with the legal status of abortion itself in NSW - with abortion still being technically a crime - women who are coerced, bullied or threatened into having an abortion against their wishes are in a grey area. The aforementioned pro-life campaigners use their stories to illuminate the supposed horrors of abortion; meanwhile, pro-choice campaigners, understandably nervous about a social climate where women's rights to control our own bodies are under constant attack, deny that women are ever coerced; that the vast majority of women who terminate their pregnancies do so with clear head and determined heart. 

But women are coerced, forced, threatened and bullied into having abortions. Not the majority of women who have abortions no, but some. Years ago, I was a support counsellor on a forum for such women. Some were young girls pressured by their parents, told if they did not abort their pregnancies they would be kicked out of home, cut off financially, even physically abused. Some were threatened by their partners; end this pregnancy or I will leave you, end this pregnancy or I will hurt you. Some were subjected to weeks of bullying; psychological abuse, threats to take the baby, tell the world you're an unfit mother, if you loved our children you'd not want another one we can't afford, if you keep it I'll leave you, if you keep it I'll take our kids and leave you.

And after the threats, bullying and abuse, they gave in. 

Some women, after this, got on with their lives. Some were wracked with grief, guilt, regret, PTSD. In one case a mother of a teenage girl whom she pressured to end her pregnancy, seeing the trauma it inflicted on her daughter, was herself para-suicidal with grief and guilt. Some mourned the children they lost, ten or twenty years on.

I'm not telling you all this to show how terrible abortion is. I'm telling you how terrible taking away a woman's right to say what happens to her own body is. 

But because abortion is not technically legal in NSW, it is not technically illegal to force or coerce someone into having one. 

That's why decriminalising abortion will help women who do not want to end their pregnancies, as well as those who wish to exercise their right to do so. By explicitly making a woman's right to an abortion legal, we can write into the law to make it illegal to coerce someone into having one. A woman who feels she is being coerced can then use this as ground to apply for an AVO, press charges or access other help. Yes, I see that the law would be difficult to enforce and prosecute. But so are sexual assault laws, and we still need those. We need to send an explicit message that it is a woman's right to control what happens to her body. To end her pregnancy or keep it, without fear.

I'm unabashedly pro-choice. I'm the mother of a new school starter now. If I'd had my right to choose, I'd be the mother of a teenager. I will always wonder what could have been. 

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