Politics: Decriminalisation! And why I think this is so important

I’m sorry to be so one-track minded at present, but it’s rare that something so interesting is happening in our local politics.

Oh and for those who don’t know, not only did the bill pass, but I’ve just had an email saying it passed without amendments, which is definitely a good thing. I’ll have another go-round with Hansard shortly and find out if I need to send any more appreciative emails. One should always encourage politicians who have done good things!

Given how I’ve been going on and on and on about this, it seems important to talk about why I feel so strongly about decriminalising abortion.
Actually, I started out pro-life. As a teenager and late teen I believed abortion was wrong, and I would never have one, under any circumstances. Though I was always uneasy about the idea of legislating this. I’m not sure why, because I did believe that life begins at conception, and a part of me still does believe that. At the time I formed these views, I was certainly aware of the possibility of conception via rape (which was, I suspect, why I didn’t like the idea of legislation forbidding abortion entirely), and could cope with that idea. The idea that one could still die in Australia as a result of pregnancy or childbirth, however, had not crossed my mind, and my knowledge of genetic conditions was pretty much limited to Down Syndrome and Thalassemia. I thought I could cope with those – or at least, I had decided I was under no circumstances going to have sex until I felt that I could cope with the possibility of winding up as a single parent with a child who had one of these conditions.

This worked pretty well as contraception, actually.

It worked even better once I learned about Tay Sachs, and all the other fun conditions that someone of mixed mediterranean, Irish and Ashkenazi jewish descent could be carrying as a nasty surprise in one’s genes.

At some point during this time, I became vaguely and uneasily pro-choice, though always with the proviso that abortion was not for me. By the same logic, nor was the morning after pill, incidentally. This may have had something to do with meeting someone who was a couple of years older than me and a single parent, and it probably had a lot to do with me rejecting fundamentalist Christianity wholesale. The whole notion that generally good people could be condemned to hell for, well, any reason really, did not sit well with me.

Then I decided to study genetic counselling. By this point, I had somehow become quite strongly pro-choice while equally strongly believing abortion was wrong. I am not sure how one does that, but I don’t think one does it logically. And I discovered in my first semester that around 50% of conceptuses fail to implant, or spontaneously abort in the first two weeks of pregnancy (before the mother even knows she was pregnant). Also, it turns out that identical twins sometimes don’t separate from each other until a week to two weeks after conception.

This, to me, rather breaks the whole ensoulment-at-conception notion. Especially the twin part. Because either the conceptus started off with two souls (no wonder it split in two), or else it suddenly acquires an extra soul a couple of weeks in, or else identical twins have either the same soul or half a soul or one of them has no soul, and none of these possibilities seem quite right to me. Clearly, then, ensoulment happens some time later, and I don’t know when it is, but this certainly lets the morning-after pill back in, in my view. Especially as odds are it wasn’t going to implant anyway…

Also, I learned about all the bloody terrifying things one’s body does during pregnancy, and all the many ways it can go wrong, and nearly found religion again on the basis that it seemed so unlikely this could ever work, let alone that it could work more than half of the time. But this very much confirmed my pro-choice feelings – even setting aside the really nasty genetic conditions I was now learning about, pregnancy was clearly not a simple or safe process. Indeed, by this stage I knew of one friend whose cousin had died in childbirth.

The real change, though, happened in my last semester of genetic counselling. Our last subject was ‘Grief and Loss’, and the one-week residential school for this subject was pretty intense. On one morning we visited a funeral home, and learned about the practical side of arranging funerals or memorials for stillborn babies, or babies terminated late in pregnancy. And in the afternoon we went to a residential children’s hospital, for children with severe mental and physical impairment.

It was a pretty nice hospital. It felt more like a kindergarten or large old house in its manner and furnishings. The staff were all registered nurses, I think; no doctor there permanently, but presumably one on call. And the children were there for a very wide range of reasons – genetic conditions such as Angelman’s Syndrome or Prader-Willi, brain damage through birth or drowning, severe cerebral palsy. To give you an idea of the severity of the conditions, none of the children (who ranged from infancy to teens) could talk in sentences, and many couldn’t talk at all. I don’t think any could walk, certainly not well. Most were in wheelchairs or crawling, some just lay on a bed. Many had other, less obvious problems, such as heart conditions or fits.

The staff were incredible. They clearly loved these kids, and looked after them with so much care and attention and competency. I couldn’t – and still can’t – imagine the strength it would take to do their job, because it wasn’t just a matter of looking after the kids’ physical needs, they would hug the kids and talk to them and bond with them and show them affection – and most of these children had very short life-expectancies. How you could have the strength to bond with and love children who you know you are going to lose, again and again, is something I can’t fathom.

One of the senior nurses sat us down and told us more about these children. They go to a special school during the day, but most of them require around the clock care. Their parents can’t, in general, look after them at home, but the law requires that they do so – that children whose situation is not critical should not be in a hospital for more than ten days in a row, or for more than a certain number of days per month (I can’t remember the details). So parents even of the children who had the highest needs, and who lived most of their lives at the hospital, generally found that only one of them could keep a job. They could never take holidays, certainly not together. The financial burden was enormous. And the emotional burden, of having a child who is mostly living away from you, and must be visited, and who requires so much help at home, was also tremendous. In many cases the burden was too much – a number of the children had become wards of the state, given up for adoption by parents who could not afford to look after them, or whose culture would not permit them to do so. These children were, of course, permanent residents. And there was the concern about children reaching the age of 15 or so, and becoming too big for beds and equipment and lifting – what would become of them after they left this hospital?

This was, to me, a complete eye-opener. Suddenly I was looking at these children, these families and going, hell, I couldn’t do that. That’s too much. I can cope with a lot, but I couldn’t cope with that.

Suddenly, I could envisage having an abortion.

And this realisation, that there really are some burdens I couldn’t bear, was somehow also a point at which I could no longer been judgmental. I don’t think I had been openly judgmental about abortion in the past, but I had felt a certain confidence in my own strength – I would never have to do that. Somehow, to me, this realisation made all choices regarding pregnancy valid. I know now what would constitute an excessive burden for me. I don’t know what is an excessive burden for anyone else. How can I? I’m in a relatively priveleged position, financially, emotionally, educationally. I have access to a wide range of resources, and I know how to access more. Also, I have the kind of guilt complex that would make anyone assume I had been raised Catholic. Yes, there are still only a relatively small number of situations in which I would contemplate abortion, but that’s because I can afford – financially and emotionally – to set the bar high.

This, to me, translates to a position where I have to be pro-choice and believe in abortion on demand. It isn’t even for feminist reasons, I don’t think (though I am certainly a feminist). It is more for reasons of common humanity. Of knowing that everyone’s situation is different, and some people’s situations are harder than I can possibly imagine, and that we, as a society, have an obligation to provide everyone with the resources and above all the options they need to survive and thrive.

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