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The issues of abortion need to be discussed more freely and openly

By Melinda Tankard Reist - posted Thursday, 15 April 2004

Two federal MPs have been taken to task for mentioning the unmentionable "A" word.

Health Minister Tony Abbott was accused of being “rash” and “stupid” and told to “shut up” for describing abortion as a national tragedy. He was labelled a “hypocrite” for relinquishing a child to adoption – as though that was an easy thing to do.

And in the Herald Sun Sarah Henderson said Senator Julian McGauran had "lost sight of his role as a member of Parliament" and should be given a “good belting around the ears” for seeking an investigation into the abortion of an almost-born baby girl.


Why is freedom of speech always defended - until that speech questions abortion?

Why shouldn't these MPs – indeed any MPs – speak about such things? They are supposed to defend the powerless, so why not the unborn and, in Abbott’s words, "traumatised young women”?

I hear from these women regularly because of my book Giving Sorrow Words: Women's Stories of Grief after Abortion. Like Ginny from Melbourne: "I would hear a baby crying in my sleep or I would get up thinking I had to breastfeed or just getting up to check on the baby ... No-one prepared me for the years of nightmares, the guilt and the pain." And Susan: "My self-esteem plummeted, I no longer cared about work, I abandoned my studies, and I drank like a fish. One night I found myself sitting in the gutter, drunk and crying, wondering what the hell was happening to me. It was like something in me died the same time my baby died."

Then there was D, from NSW, who described herself and women like her as “duped, lied to, ignored, unloved, unsupported, violated and left for dead.”

Abortion was “the easy way out” – for everyone else – the partner who didn't want to support a child; the embarrassed parents, harsh employer and school – society in general. "Freedom of choice" was a myth – the women felt they had no choice.

Even some pro-choice women’s groups now acknowledge abortion as a “tragedy” and the rate “too high”. If we can at least agree on this, perhaps we can begin to find ways forward that deal with economic and social problems, need for workplace reform, discrimination against women, sexual exploitation and lack of male commitment, which drive women to abortion in the first place.


And how can what happened to the distraught woman who sought the termination of her eight-month unborn baby with suspected dwarfism be seen as anything other than a tragedy?

The woman who, due to cultural superstition and social stigma, believed children with disabilities brought “bad karma” and were a form of punishment was not offered treatment to relieve her mental state. Instead, she was relieved of her baby. Was she told anything about risks including uterine rupture, cervical laceration and infection; or research which shows women with a pre-existing mental condition and women who abort late-term for foetal abnormality are especially at risk of post-abortion trauma?

This case raises serious issues - someone had to try to get them looked at.

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About the Author

Melinda Tankard Reist is a Canberra author, speaker, commentator and advocate with a special interest in issues affecting women and girls. Melinda is author of Giving Sorrow Words: Women's Stories of Grief after Abortion (Duffy & Snellgrove, 2000), Defiant Birth: Women Who Resist Medical Eugenics (Spinifex Press, 2006) and editor of Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls (Spinifex Press, 2009). Melinda is a founder of Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation ( Melinda blogs at

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