What I learned from editing Choice Words, a book about abortion

What I learned from editing a book about abortion

Somewhere in those first few days after I had agreed to edit a book about abortion, I began to realise just how little I knew about it.

I had no idea that it was truly illegal in parts of Australia still – in hindsight, I think I just thought it was severely frowned upon and difficult to organise. I didn’t realise you could go to jail for ten years.

It seemed archaic, like something from another era – a grandparent’s story.

Abortion is a subject that is fraught specifically because, like euthanasia, it deals with the question of life. As anyone who has ever tried to bring it up over dinner might know, it is a difficult subject for people to talk about.

I talked to women who were glad that they had been able to have an abortion but, and herein lies some of the complexity, still, many years later, found the general subject fraught and their specific memory of it too painful to want to return to.

I heard from women who wanted to sing their abortion stories from the rooftops. Men who had never really discussed their partner’s abortions. Women who had had multiple abortions.

Women for whom their abortions seemed so commonplace and uneventful that they barely felt the need to talk about them – could hardly remember them.

I am surprised when people are more concerned about an unborn life than an existing life, but I don’t find it impossible to understand – babies are innocent in ways adults aren’t, and it can seem like a simple line to connect a baby with an unborn foetus, but to do so is a mistake because they are not the same thing.

When we began working on Choice Words, abortion was a crime in both QLD and NSW, but while the book was coming together, in October last year, QLD decriminalised it. At a time of great turmoil around the world, this didn’t necessarily stay in the headlines for all that long, and for many it was a surprise along the lines of ‘I didn’t realise it was still illegal in Qld!’, but this change made many people very happy and relieved – tears were shed.

There is no reason why abortion should still be a crime in NSW. Not only is it out of line with the rest of Australia, it isn’t in keeping with the way Australians think. Countless studies show that the majority of Australians believe that women should have access to abortion.

The need for this book was all the more apparent when I asked people to write something for the book.

Women feel compelled to tell their stories. People want to share their experiences, help progress debate, help other people with their difficult decisions. This was, for some, the first time they had spoken about it at all.

Abortion should no longer be an embarrassing conversation. As with contraception, we will all benefit if we learn how to talk about it in a respectful manner, and from an early age. Why not? The idea that kids can’t understand complex issues is bunkum.

The issue remains timely while there are women and girls in Australia who are unable to access abortion, and whose lives will be cut short or harmed because of it. If we can reduce the ways in which it sucks to grow up female in this country then that would be fantastic: less body policing, more about allowing women and girls to feel okay the way they are.

Of course there’s a link between the policing of women’s bodies and the number of women in positions of power. Let women decide for themselves what they want to do privately and publicly – that is progress, and the opposite to progress is regression, deterioration.

While we worry about our bodies constantly we have less time to get on with other things – and we want to get on with other things, whether it be playing AFL, running the country or helping the banks sort themselves out.

Poor fertility education wreaks havoc. There is an old adage – information is power – and now that we have more information than ever, it’s truer than ever.

An early abortion is not at all invasive and can be done from home – it’s two pills. Many people, myself included, did not know this, and that’s because we don’t talk about it.

So let’s start talking about it. I don’t mean that abortions need to be compulsory but they should be accessible for women and girls who need them.

Babies are wonderful and gorgeous and dribbly and smelly and just plain adorable, but unwanted babies are hard for everyone – mothers, fathers, grandparents, and society at large. All babies have a right to be wanted and loved. THAT is a basic human right.

Louise Swinn edited Choice Words, a collection of writing about abortion published by Allen & Unwin. 

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