AT 65, “Margaret” is still beautiful. She is carefully groomed, immaculately dressed and graciously housed. You would never guess the stories she has to tell; her middle-class friends never have. But Margaret knows what it was like to have abortions in the 1950s, when making that choice made criminals of her, her husband and her doctors.
“I had five abortions, two without anaesthetic,” she says. “I did it to put my husband through medical school. I became pregnant very easily. We were using contraception but the only things available were the Dutch cap or condoms. People used to say that the Government made 25 per cent of condoms ineffective; I don’t know if it was true or not. Later, when I tried the pill, I vomited and had migraines, so I had to go off that too.
“The first abortion was before we were married. My husband took me to a little suburban house near Clifton Hill and a very nice man did the abortion under anaesthetic.
“I felt I was a bad girl to have become pregnant before I was married – that was a very shameful thing in those days – but the fact of a baby that might have been didn’t worry me at all. I had done matric biology, and I knew that at six weeks it was just a mass of cells, like a raspberry.”
But as she talks about the second abortion, a very different experience, tears slide down her face. She was married but her husband was still studying and she earned their sole income. This time, the nice doctor told her she was too far gone for him and sent her to a strange GP. “I’ll always remember that he had brown and white spats on his shoes, the kind I always associated with American gangsters,” she says.
“He took me into a back room. Three other girls were in there already, with their legs up. I had to sit up on the edge of a bench and open my legs; there was a bucket on the floor underneath me. This guy inserted something into me that was so hellishly painful, and twisted it the way a corkscrew goes into a bottle . . .” Her voice cracks.
“In the midst of it all, I was able to say to him, ‘You loathsome man, how can you do this to women?’. . . We were like cattle, and this bloody man was doing it for money! Making money out of women’s misery.
“And he said, contemptuously: ‘I’m saving beautiful young socialite girls like you from disgrace.’ I was so angry. I said: ‘This ring on my finger is real! I’m doing this to put a young man through medicine. And I’ll kill him if he turns out to be like you!’ ”
The following night her husband took her to the cinema, where she had a massive haemorrhage. Later, at the Royal Women’s Hospital, staff assumed she was miscarrying naturally, although one said: “You did something to bring this on, didn’t you?” “I denied it, of course,” Margaret says.
She was taken to a ward of sleeping women where a nurse sat her over a kidney dish and hissed: “Now shut up!” Says Margaret: “The pain was so bad I just wanted to scream. I remember passing this little grey foetus and a whole lot of other things.
“All that doctor had done was broken the membrane to trigger a miscarriage. If only he had told me what to expect! But (abortionists) knew that everybody would shut up, that no one would say a word. At least he used sterile instruments.
“I was lucky that my husband was a medical student and could find real doctors. There were poor girls (wanting abortions) who would go out and stand on street corners and be picked up by a man and taken somewhere. They wouldn’t have told a single soul where they were going, and if they disappeared, they just went on the missing list. Some who died were put two to a box and taken to Springvale cemetery, or their bodies were dumped at sea.”
Margaret passionately supports the decriminalisation of abortion. “Women are entitled to do it without it being a crime, without having to be ashamed, and without their health having to suffer. Anyone who makes that decision has powerful reasons for it.”
She says adoption is not for everyone. “I knew that I would never have been able to give a baby away. A couple of my friends were forced by their parents into adopting out their babies, and they still look at every face in the crowd.”
DR Eloise Gawler has already named the child she has been carrying for 23 weeks: Elizabeth. She did it to help her bond early with a baby whom she might not have for very long. Elizabeth has a hole in the heart and an oesophageal blockage. Her chest is too small, parts of her brain and spine are missing and so is most of her lower jaw. The diagnosis is Edwards’ syndrome which means that Elizabeth may also be blind and deaf.
Most children with this syndrome are lucky to live more than a few months. Eloise, 26, is determined to give Elizabeth, her first baby, as much time as possible. She did not even consider abortion, a procedure she has opposed ever since she first heard of it when she was 10. “I was so shocked, even though it was explained to me in a gentle way,” she says. “My instant thought was: ‘I can’t believe mummies kill their babies’.”
She sympathises with women who have conceived in extreme circumstances, such as incest or rape. But, even then, she believes that “the child should not be punished. The unborn is as human and as much of a person as anyone walking around on the street, and because of that I think it’s wrong to abort a baby, disabled or not, wanted or not”.
Eloise believes that many women develop depression and relationship problems after abortion: “I think that deep down a woman does know that what she was carrying in her womb was a baby.” She knows that the course she has chosen will bring distress, too, but believes that it will be different because it will not be tainted with self-reproach.
She has enormous family support. Her husband Mathew, also a doctor, shares her views. Many friends and relatives have already sent her cards or phoned to offer help.
Asked about her religious beliefs, her first response is, “I’m not a Catholic.” (She grew up Baptist and now worships with the Assembly of God, and has been informally associated with Right to Life.) “I think people feel that anyone who has a pro-life view is Catholic. But I do believe that human life is special because God created us as somehow different from the animals, and that there’s a worth to human life that’s beyond flesh and blood.”
To the outsider, her quietly spoken resolve seems unshakeable. Sometimes her voice trembles when she talks about her baby’s problems, and some questions momentarily give her pause. She believes, for example, that things will be extremely difficult for a while after the baby’s birth, but that she will adjust. In fact, literature on parenting disabled children talks about chronic grief, with parents experiencing a renewed sense of loss every time the child’s peers reach a milestone – walking, talking, entering uni, getting married – that the disabled child
will never make.
But Eloise has spoken to parents who believe that their disabled child has brought something special to their family, and she believes that suffering can have value. “Painful things happen in everyone’s life, and it’s our responsibility to face them in the right way.”
SARAH Lantz was 17 and a Catholic schoolgirl in Sydney when she discovered she was pregnant to her first boyfriend. “I was in my school uniform at the time and I remember the doctor saying: ‘You’re pregnant. Congratulations!’ I just burst into tears.”
She felt she could tell no one. Her teachers had taught her that sex before marriage was a terrible sin and offered information only on its mechanics and the list of acts that were forbidden to her. Given that Catholic girls are not expected to defy the church’s teaching, they had told Sarah nothing about contraception.
“I had no idea,” she says now, aged 23. “I had no concept that I could get pregnant. I had this naive idea that it was not going to happen to me. I denied I was pregnant for two whole months. I kept thinking: ‘I’m just a bit late . . .”‘
She says the isolation was extremely painful; that is why she is now a student rights activist on a Melbourne campus, working to ensure that other young women don’t suffer on their own: “It really politicised me.” But the most traumatic part of the experience, she says, was driving to the clinic for a termination and finding it surrounded by Right to Life protesters.
“I was so freaked out I didn’t get it done. I was really scared. There were about 30 people out the front with crucifixes and religious slogans like, ‘Abortion is the ultimate child abuse’. It symbolised the church, the congregation, the school – everything I had been socialised to believe in was confronting me. Then I had to go back home and deal with what had happened on my own, with no one I could tell about it.”
But the experience did not shake her resolve. “When you want an abortion, you want an abortion, and you will do anything to get it,” she says. “I probably would have done something myself if I’d had to.” She made a second appointment and this time found no cordon of protesters barring her way.
She is still angry; at the church, the school, the inadequate services that left her waiting weeks for her termination and the way she had to scrounge from friends to pay for it. But, although she cried many tears, she says she has no regrets.
“It felt so right to have a termination,” she says. “For years and years I thought I was going to get punished by God, but it was one of the best decisions I ever made. Obviously something inside me was saying: ‘This is what I really want.’ It has stayed the right decision, in terms of who I am now.
“Back then I didn’t know who I was, or where I wanted to be. That situation would have dictated the whole of the rest of my life. We all think we are adults at that age, but we’re not. I was just a child myself.”
She feels that the refusal of the adults around her to teach her about her sexuality was immoral. “No one taught me about my body and how to be in charge of it. That was taken away from me, shrouded in secrecy. The teachers had an understanding but didn’t tell the students. I think all those secrets that they kept from people f—-d over lots of lives.”
Like Margaret, she passionately believes that women must be able to control their fertility. “No one wants to grow up and have an abortion. Women don’t choose to find themselves in these circumstances.”
Back at school after her abortion, she confronted pious girls wearing pro-life badges of tiny foetal feet with, “What about if you can’t afford to have a child? What if you can’t look after it? Have you thought about all the situations women find themselves in?”
She is still angered by images of schoolgirls praying at anti-abortion rallies: “They’re indoctrinated at school.”
But she says she is just saddened by adult women who want to impose their anti-abortion views on all women. She believes that women are autonomous beings who must be free to decide their own fate. “I think women are brought up to ensure that everyone else is fine in our lives, except ourselves. (The anti-abortion view) is based on the tradition that women must not be allowed to be their own person, must be the mother or the wife, defined in relationship to others and to men.”
* “Margaret” is an assumed name.
First published in The Age.