This past week has been tough for a lot of women. Watching the US Supreme Court overturn the Roe v Wade decision, effectively allowing states to re-criminalise abortion at their will, has caused many to reflect on just how flimsy women’s rights can be.
While it might seem like an American court ruling has very little to do with our rights here in Australia, the decision is actually a sobering insight into how easily progress can be wound back at the will of lawmakers, politicians and others in positions of power.
Australian abortion laws, much like the US, are the jurisdiction of states and territories – and it was only last year that South Australia became the final Australian state to decriminalise abortion, with the law coming into effect on 7 July 2022. That’s right – even today, women are forced to travel to access what should be a basic, affordable and easily available medical treatment.
When the Roe v Wade decision was made by the US Supreme Court in 1973, it was a truly radical moment of progress. To have a traditional institution in a country that was still heavily influenced by religious beliefs acknowledge and enshrine in law a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body was a massive step in the direction of gender equality.
That ruling has been a reference point for other countries as they have negotiated abortion rights in their own contexts – and unfortunately, the overruling of it may equally be seen as a signal to the international community that women’s rights can be taken away as easily as they were withheld for centuries.
Alarmingly, the support for the Supreme Court decision among conservative Americans has shown that there is still significant opposition to female bodily autonomy, and if that’s true of America, it’s undoubtedly true of Australia too.
As a young woman, that terrifies me. It scares me for myself, but also for my nieces, my friends and my community. An unplanned pregnancy can have a disastrous effect on a woman. The implications of pregnancy and childbirth, and the prospect of raising a child or seeking alternative options, can effectively derail a woman’s life.
I’ve had numerous friends access abortions, and having that option has been absolutely fundamental to their future life outcomes. One small procedure has made it possible for them to live the lives that they want and to contribute to society, build careers and forge communities that would never have been possible had they been forced to single-handedly raise a child at a point in their life when they weren’t equipped to do so.
Regardless of how many men tell us that we should be more careful, that contraception if our responsibility, that sex before marriage is a risk we knowingly take (as though marriage would make unplanned pregnancy automatically welcome), we know that reality is more complicated than the lofty beliefs of men who claim to be ‘pro-life’.
Contraception is not always effective. Consensual sex is not the only form of intercourse that might result in pregnancy. Pregnancy can be dangerous for women with other health issues. Sometimes things just happen, and an unplanned pregnancy occurs.
Access to safe and affordable abortions has been instrumental in helping women escape poverty, remain in education, participate in the workforce and avoid injury or even death from seeking alternative ways to terminate a pregnancy.
The prospect of returning to a time of illegal and unsafe abortions, or unwanted pregnancies being carried to term is genuinely frightening. It makes me wonder what other rights can be taken away from women on the grounds of morality based on religion?
We need to be aware of this possibility, and stay ready to act should our reproductive rights come under threat here. I’m worried, and the women I know are worried too. If it can happen in America, it can happen in Australia.