Decades ago now, I had an abortion. I wasn’t happy about it. I felt it was deeply unfair. My partner and I had been responsible: we had been using contraception, but, as it occasionally does, it failed.
It remains the only time in my life when I could have accidentally fallen pregnant and I did. For the few weeks that the pregnancy lasted I always felt it had happened to my body and not to me. When I had the termination, I felt not just relief but that my life had gone back to being the way it should be.
I can honestly say I rarely thought about it again. I got on with my life and, eventually, had two planned and much-wanted daughters.
Once my girls were teenagers, I began to get a bit of a profile as a writer and commentator. In that capacity I used to (and still do) appear occasionally on Richard Glover’s Monday Political Forum, as part of his high-rating weekly Drive show on ABC702 Sydney radio. I appeared with all sorts of well-known people. In fact, at one stage federal politicians Bill Shorten, Tony Abbott and I appeared so regularly together that I wryly suggested we should take the act on the road. It now appears the two of them may have had other career plans.
One Monday, while my daughters were in high school, I was asked to discuss the issues of the week with ex-NSW Liberal leader John Brogden and the then Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Peter Jensen. One of the major talking points at the time was the (supposed) discovery that the child a girlfriend of Tony Abbott’s had adopted out was an ABC camera operator whose beat included Abbott’s place of work — the national parliament. (It later turned out that the young man was not Tony Abbott’s child at all.) As a result of this story, debate about abortion and adoption had been raging even more furiously than usual. When I received the forum topics earlier in the day, I could see that abortion — as I had expected — was prominent among them. I had no idea what Brogden’s attitude might be, but I was pretty sure I knew Jensen’s likely position.
Sure enough, when the subject came up, both Brogden and Jensen spoke about the issue as if it happened to a small and peculiar group of not-very-nice females. It was theoretical to them. Brogden was more ambivalent in his attitude but Jensen was unequivocal. He believed abortion was wrong. When it was my turn to speak I talked about the giant female silence around the issue and how it was a rare sexually active woman who had not at one time or another wondered whether she would have an abortion when faced with the possibility of an unwanted pregnancy. I made the point that for women unwanted pregnancy and abortion were not theoretical but part of everyday life.
The discussion continued, but the blokes still talked as if this was a rare and terrible event that happened only to others. As they talked, I realized that I was going to have to break the giant female silence. When it was next my turn, I did. I said I had had an abortion. Well, you could clearly have knocked the blokes down with a feather yet, while the tenor of the discussion certainly changed, nobody changed their mind. As time ticked by, Glover moved the discussion to the final topic — our favourite recipes from the 1970s.
Naturally outspoken as I am, it took some courage to admit that I had an abortion so publicly particularly in front of someone — Archbishop Jensen — who I knew would condemn what I had done. When I left the studio, I felt genuinely frightened. Would I receive hate mail? Threats? Would people shun me? Worse, later that evening I had to attend a P&C meeting at my daughter’s (fortunately secular public) high school. How would the other parents react?
I received a number of phone calls following the show. One friend rang to agree heartily with what I’d said about Iraq. When I asked her about the abortion conversation, she — a mother of one — said, oh yeah, of course, I’ve had two. But those calls were from my mates, so it’s hardly surprising they agreed with me. The relative strangers at the P&C could be a different matter.
Filled with trepidation, I arrived at the school. As I walked through the door the president of the P&C, a woman I knew slightly, leapt up and said;
“Oh Jane, I heard you on Richard Glover this afternoon. Loved what you said about the apricot chicken.”
And that was it, no-one was shocked or surprised, nothing awful or even awkward happened at all. All the women I did speak to about it told me their own abortion stories. Turned out there was no need for that giant female silence at all. Men were just as accepting.
Tracey Spicer’s article about her own abortion in The Hoopla prompted me to write this article in solidarity. In light of the threat to women’s freedom represented by the current debate around the proposed Zoe’s Law in the NSW parliament, I believe it is important to keep breaking that giant female silence.
In fact, unwanted pregnancy and abortion are such a normal part of women’s lives I often watch those who fulminate against the practice and wonder just how many women in their own lives must be lying to them.
* This article was originally published at Women’s Agenda