The Battleground of Women’s Bodies
The United States’ recent, draconian legislation on abortion has once again brought the topic of female bodily autonomy to the foreground. Once again, it seems that everyone, regardless of whether or not they actually own a uterus or identify as a woman, has an opinion.
It is an understandably terrifying time for women in the United States, whether they happen to live in the states affected by the laws or not. Women are justifiably afraid this slow dismantling of the tenets of Roe v Wade will have only one outcome, and it's a dire one for women all around the world.
Australian women have been keeping a close eye on the proceedings. As we’re all too aware on this side of the pond, when the United States sneezes, the rest of the world tends to catch cold. This decision by the US is particularly worrying here in New South Wales and also in Queensland, where we have our own issues with bodily autonomy - though thankfully, at this point, they are nowhere near as dangerous.
Still, astonishingly and inexplicably, abortion remains explicitly listed as a criminal act in New South Wales and Queensland. Though subsequent interpretations hold abortion to be legal at the doctor’s discretion in due consideration of negative impacts on the physical and mental health of the mothers, it’s still technically a crime. In 2016, Greens MP Mehreen Faruqi introduced a bill to reform the legislation, but it was struck off the running list in Parliament. Three years later, abortion remains a crime.
You might think since it is still possible to get an abortion, it’s a law essentially without teeth, a crime in name only. However, it’s a law that still has real-world consequences, as 27-year-old woman Anna Groth learned all too well. She lay in sepsis for five days because her doctor was unable to perform the abortion that would cure her of her deteriorating condition, which nearly placed her in intensive care. “I was at the core of a political stalemate...” Groth told the Sydney Morning Herald. “...No one should have their physical health put at risk because of this.”(https://www.smh.com.au/healthcare/my-body-was-a-political-stalemate-nsw-has-the-abortion-law-debate-it-has-been-avoiding-for-100-years-20160622-gpp2ns.html).
But it’s not only the right to a timely abortion that women in New South Wales have to contend with. It's also their reproductive freedom in terms of preventative contraception. It’s a problem that extends beyond the borders of this state and is, in fact, nation-wide. Lack of contraception places women’s choices about their own bodies in the hands of others - including, shockingly often, the hands of their husbands or partners.
For example, it is notoriously difficult for women in their twenties to obtain a tubal ligation in this country, despite their personal needs, wants, and childbearing history. This issue also came to the forefront of public debate in 2016, when 22-year-old Holly Maitland, who already had three unplanned children, was unable to find a specialist to perform the tubal ligation her own doctor had recommended for her. The specialists declared Maitland was “too young” to make this decision about her own body. Not, apparently, too young to be responsible for three other human beings, it should be noted.
This paternalistic need to control women’s bodies is hardly new. And it's much more widespread than many people imagine. Maitland’s case was further highlighted in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald by Clementine Ford. In the aftermath of the story going national, she called for stories from women who had attempted to obtain a tubal ligation procedure on her Facebook page. The results were appalling. All told, there were nearly 400 responses from women. Some were told they were too young to decide the fate of their own bodies (unless that decision resulted in children), others that their partner or future partners might want children (in which case it was obviously their responsibility to provide them). Most disturbingly, some women told tales about being refused tubal litigation unless their husband gave them explicit written permission to undergo the procedure.
As Ford points out, it’s horrifying that women who wish to have something as simple as the right to control what happens to their own bodies should face so many obstacles. As women, it seems our bodies are considered so much more than our own. They're political footballs, to be passed around at will, fought over and legislated and controlled. Indeed, the only thing it seems we have a right to do whenever and in whatever circumstance we please is to reproduce.
From the sexualisation of young girls and women, to controls placed on fertile women, pregnant women, and women who don’t want to become mothers at all, one message is overwhelmingly clear - our bodies are not our own. At least, not solely ours. This fact is clear every time someone asks a girl to cover up to make the boys or men around her more comfortable, every time someone touches a pregnant woman without her consent or strangers publicly question her choices (“shouldn't we make that decaf?”), every time a medical professional refuses a grown woman is refused a procedure because of the impact it might have on the men (or potential men) and children (or potential children) she might one day have in her life.
All these people, even the hypothetical ones, merit scrutiny along with the wants and needs of the women whose bodies are being considered. It is exhausting and dehumanizing to be reduced to your most basic parts - to a walking, talking vessel for a vagina or a uterus. It is infuriating other people can have as much control over your own body as you do. It is 2019. This kind of tyrannical behavior is unacceptable.
By: Siri Williams
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