Abortion in the first person


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.

Men, women and office games

Her biggest mistake is giving him unsolicited advice; his, reacting to her as if she were his mother. He likes his competence to be appreciated; she likes her feelings to be taken into account. He likes solving his own problems; she tends to run her life by committee, consulting everyone around her before making a decision. Sounds like a marriage, doesn’t it?

In fact, it’s the gender dynamics of the average office, according to Sydney-based author Candy Tymson, who believes that differences in the way men and women operate can play merry hell with communication between the sexes, even when they are at work.
Tymson, a business speaker and corporate trainer with 25 years’ experience working with large corporations, has written a book charting the differences between men’s and women’s approaches to the business world and the frustration and confusion that can result. Gender Games: Doing Business with the Opposite Sex, is a snappy, reader-friendly summary of the latest research findings on the communications gender gap, together with tactful suggestions on how to bridge it.

Tymson called the book Gender Games because she believes that each sex’s different operating style can be traced as far back as the school playground.

Men Hate Women Who:

Are too emotional

Are not focused enough

Go into too much unnecessary detail

Take themselves too seriously

Women Hate Men Who:

Do not take them seriously

Interrupt or speak for them

Call them names such as “sweetheart” or “honey”

Just don’t understand how they like to work

Young boys play competitive games such as football and cricket, in which there is a leader, each player has a particular role and the aim is to win. Girls play cooperative, inclusive games such as hopscotch and skippy, in which everyone gets a turn and the aim is to keep everybody happy.

Tymson says each sex automatically applies this childhood orientation to life in the business world. Of course, there are no absolutes and stereotypic behaviors are breaking down as the sexes work together. But, she says, it is still true that male managers tend to be task-focused, directive and solitary decision-makers, while female managers are more collaborative and consultative, as well as better equipped for taking on several tasks simultaneously.

“To men, playing the game and playing it well is what matters. For most women, being liked and being part of the game is what matters, not the game itself,” she says.

“Even the word ‘game’ means quite different things to a man and a woman. To most women, the word ‘opponent’ is essentially equivalent to the word ‘enemy’. To most men, it just means a competitor. To women, ‘cooperation’ means that everyone gets involved and pitches in. To men, ‘cooperation’ means doing your job and letting everyone else do theirs.”

So what does all this mean for life in the land of power suits? Given that men run most of the public sphere, interpreting workplace exchanges accurately is a survival skill that can be particularly tricky for women. Take the apparently innocuous issue of asking questions.

The book tells of an American linguist, Deborah Tannen, observing a group of medical interns as they did hospital rounds with a senior doctor. The female students frequently asked questions; the males did not. She asked the men later whether this was because they already knew the answers.

Tymson writes: “Without exception, all the men said that it is common for interns and residents to conceal their ignorance by not asking questions, since those who (ask) are judged less capable. Instead, they would find out the information themselves, either by researching it after the event or asking one-on-one, but never in front of their peers.”

At the end of the year, the senior doctor marked down most of the women for their ward performance. He believed their questioning indicated they did not understand as much as their male counterparts.

Tymson says that, for a man, achieving goals and solving problems independently is extremely important: “To him, autonomy is a symbol of efficiency, power and competence; a man’s sense of self is defined through his ability to achieve results.” Consequently, “One of the biggest mistakes a woman can make is to offer a man unsolicited advice.”
Because proving their competence is not as important to most women, they generally do not find offers of help offensive and do not perceive needing help as a sign of weakness, she says. Their approach is more likely to be, “Why waste time when you can simply ask someone?”

There are other ways in which a typical male perspective can judge a woman’s different operating style as ineffective or inappropriate. Says Tymson: “I had a managing director talk to me the other day, very concerned about a senior woman who was his resources manager. He had given her a problem and he just wanted her to solve it. She kept coming back to check in with him.

“A woman will go around and discuss a problem with a number of people, get feedback and check whether people will support a particular solution or not. Her focus is to recommend something that most people will go along with. A typical male manager might discuss it discreeely with one or two people but will feel he must make the decision. It leaves men thinking that women can’t make a decision on their own. But women are focused on building rapport, not just for their own emotional needs, but to achieve the goal.”

While men can find women’s routes to a goal unnecessarily verbose and circuitous, women can find the male style abrupt to the point of rudeness. Tymson says men tend to use language to preserve their independence and maintain their position in a group; women, to create connection and intimacy. Women usually give feedback and encouragement to a speaker by smiling, nodding and asking questions. (This can backfire for them when listening to men, who can slide into lecturing mode because they interpret nodding as agreement, rather than mere attentiveness.)
Increasingly, the best managers have developed a blend of both male and female approaches, Tymson says. She surveyed 336 managing directors, managers and company staff to try to determine where they scored in terms of four “feminine” goals (equality, agreement, feeling, interdependence) and four “masculine” goals (status, competition, action and objects, autonomy).

Most used both “the ‘masculine’ behaviors of being decisive, focused and logical, together with the ‘feminine’ behaviors of building relationships, seeking agreement and relying more on their intuition”.

One successful man was dismayed that he scored high on “feminine” values. Then he realised that this was because he ran a company in which the staff were female and the product – romance novels – was designed for the women’s market. In his previous job with a construction company, he had operated quite differently.

Women, however, must be more cautious about adopting the “male” style. In the book, Tymson writes that, “Generally, (businesswomen) are still expected to hedge their beliefs as opinions, seek advice from others, be ‘polite’ in their requests . . . If a woman does talk in this way, she is seen as lacking authority . . . (But) if she uses the male model and talks with certainty, makes bold statements of fact rather than hedged statements of opinion (and) interrupts others . . . she is disliked.”

Tymson says older men, brought up with the belief that women should be protected, particularly dislike coming up against young women who are tougher than they are. “They just let her go until she makes a mistake and then they sabotage her,” she says. “They don’t let her know about important meetings; urgent material doesn’t make its way to her. Don’t try to be one of the boys; they don’t like it.”

If being tough earns dislike, and being nice earns contempt, how should corporate women play the game? Tymson acknowledges that this is a vexed question. She suggests that a woman should adapt her style to the individual she is dealing with, but also refuse to be intimidated by men.

And she offers a piece of advice that might well have come from grandma: “A man needs to feel acknowledged and respected. You get the best response appealing to his abilities and expertise; once that has been established, he will accept your suggestions.”

* Gender Games: Doing Business with the Opposite Sex, by Candy Tymson, published by Tymson Communications, $19.95.

Quick thinking can win Tymson’s words

How’s this for an embarrassing moment? The female managing director of a large advertising agency is running late for a meeting to pitch her firm to a prospective new client. She rushes in to the boardroom, where 20 men are waiting, and dumps her briefcase on the table, upside-down.

Eager to start her presentation, she reaches for her case to extract some relevant audio-visuals. The case opens and a host of personal items spill out, including a tampon, which rolls slowly down the centre of the table, drops to the floor and lands at the feet of the chairman.

Not missing a beat, the female MD strides confidently to the end of the table and picks up the tampon. She holds it up in view of the chairman, looks him in the eye and says with a laugh: “I don’t think you’ll be needing this,” before putting it back in her case and continuing with the presentation.

She won the account.

First published in The Age.