An interminable debate

Giving Sorrow Words, By Melinda Tankard-Reist, Duffy & Snellgrove, $17.95

Are women who have abortions free moral agents or coerced victims?

THE bulk of Giving Sorrow Words consists of 19 edited stories of women’s grief after abortion. The stories, and the introduction and afterword that sandwich them, emphasise female victimhood. In Melinda Tankard-Reist’s world, women are coerced into having sex and abortions they don’t want by their husbands, their parents, their doctors and, of course, feminists and abortionists.

Quoting American anti-pornography campaigner Catharine MacKinnon approvingly, Tankard-Reist asserts that women have been tricked into believing they want and benefit from the contraceptives and abortion that underpin their sexual freedom. Instead, abortion was legalised to serve a man’s requirements for sexual access to women and free him of the inconvenient results of that access, children.

Indeed, reading Giving Sorrow Words is like time-warping back to the victim feminist hey-day of the late 1970s and “80s. There’s Adrienne Rich asserting that abortion is violence against women, Catharine MacKinnon insisting that most women only have sex because they are regularly forced or pressured, and Germaine Greer claiming that women’s real vulnerability in the matter of reproduction makes their claims to any choice in the matter a fiction.

Such victim rhetoric – now largely discredited – reflected the struggle of radical feminists to explain why women continued to mother – some even pursuing painful infertility treatments to do so – despite their assertions that motherhood was the locus of female oppression.

Similarly, Tankard-Reist struggles to depict women as helpless, indoctrinated, coerced victims who lack any trace of moral agency in order to explain why they have sex when they don’t want to become mothers, and abort unwanted pregnancies. It is only once she has demonstrated that all women have sex, use contraception and have abortions against their will, that she can claim that the prohibitionist policies on abortion supported by her long-time employer Senator Brian Harradine actually liberate women.

It’s a big agenda, and one at which she fails miserably. Because what becomes clear as one turns page after page of what even Tankard-Reist admits makes bleak reading is that what women find so painful are problematic pregnancies, not problematic abortions.

As the stories, and the recent NHMRC Information Paper on Termination of Pregnancy in Australia makes clear, one of the biggest predictors of ongoing ambivalence after abortion (a phenomenon experienced by only 2 per cent of aborting women) is coercion. This coercion can come in the form of social circumstances – such as unemployment – that women feel preclude them from being a good mother, and abusive or threatening husbands/boyfriends or parents.

Aside from the ongoing pursuit by feminists of social equity and justice for women, feminist abortion service providers operating in public free-standing clinics seek to enhance female autonomy by adhering to best-practice information and counselling guidelines. Such an approach acknowledges the woman’s values and competence as a moral decision-maker.

It is unfortunate that proper counselling is an expense some private operators seek to avoid. Perhaps if Tankard-Reist changed tacks and encouraged Harradine to stop trying – in line with his religious commitments – to derail, defund and legally harass such clinics, there would be fewer sorrowful women needing their stories told in the first place.