I'm not going to be judgmental, I'm just judging you.

Australia’s Federal Health Minister, Tony Abbott, is one of my least favourite people. He’s been on an anti-abortion kick for the last few years, and the recent jewel in his attack is a government-funded pregnancy counselling hotline which allegedly aims to help women make informed choices.

This doesn’t sound like a bad idea, right? A big part of feminism is about making sure women have the ability to make informed choices, and the resources available so that ability can be utilised in the fullest manner. So why do I have an issue? Well, let’s talk about that.

From what the Minister is quoting this month, there are about 84,000 abortions a year performed in Australia. For the Minister, this figure is too high. He’s been claiming it’s too high for some time now (then again, when he started really hammering this issue in the last couple of years he was claiming the figure was as high as 100,000, so I must admit I’m skeptical of his grasp of the figures), even aside from the fact that the abortion rate has been dropping over the last decade. The hotline is explicitly in place with an aim to reduce the abortion rate. Perhaps, for some, that’s not a particularly awful goal. The question in that case is whether a hotline is the best way to go about the problem.

“One of the interesting questions is: is this the best way of dealing with it. Surely we want to stop people getting pregnant rather than cutting down the number of abortions once they are pregnant.”

Eva Cox, Women’s Electoral Lobby. In “Giving Pause to the Pregnant“, in The Australian

I think it’s fairly obvious that Cox is advocating better information about contraception. And whilst Australia’s not going down the US route of providing government funding for abstinence programs, the comment’s not surprising, given Mr. Abbott was recently interviewed on Triple J’s (Australia’s youth radio station, part of the public broadcaster network) current affairs progam, Hack [mirror] talking about his opposition to Australia becoming a so-called “condom culture”. [Note: Link is to an mp3 of the segment. The interview with Abbott starts about 1/3 of the way in.]

That’s not all of Mr. Abbott’s complaints about culture. In a recent article, he has a bit to say about ‘cultural conditioning’:

“Once upon a time, women who found themselves pregnant were culturally conditioned to have the baby and have it adopted out. These days, there is very different cultural conditioning.”

Health Minister Tony Abbott, “Babies Inconvenient for Some

The “once upon a time” is telling language. Invoking the idea of fairy tales when talking about women being culturally conditioned into carrying a pregnancy is, plain and simple, to romanticise the notion of forcing women to give birth. Also, I’m always quite baffled by the tendency of anti-choice politicians to act as though their voices on abortion are so completely powerless against pro-choicers, particularly when they’re holding the reigns of a country’s health policy, as Mr. Abbott is. But I digress. The Minister was telling us about the role of the hotline.

“The whole point of this is to try to ensure that, whatever decision a woman makes, it really is her decision and not something that has been forced on her by social conditioning.”

Health Minister Tony Abbott, “Babies Inconvenient for Some

Again, one could argue that this is an admirable goal. But consider that quote next to this one:

“Sure, abortion is a ‘choice’, like drinking and gambling,” [Abbott] said in a column in Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph last week, “but it is still a tragedy for all involved.”

Giving Pause to the Pregnant“, in The Australian

I’m going to be kind and assume that the Health Minister is referring not to moderate social drinking or gambling, but to alcoholism and gambling that falls on the addiction side of the scale. On the off chance that he means the former, then he’s making pro-choice arguments really easy, because there are few who would consider a drink at lunch or dinner and a bet on the Melbourne Cup “a tragedy for all involved”. Then again, he’s significantly minimising the kind of weight the decision to (or not to) have an abortion should be given, in a way that many pro-choicers would question. However, the latter interpretation is also highly problematic. He’s comparing having an abortion to chronic addictions. All other issues aside, because I can’t find polite language to detail what’s problematic about that comparison, surely the nation’s Health Minister can tell the difference between the decision to undergo a surgical procedure and an addiction? If not, why, precisely, is he our Health Minister?

Now, lest we think the Minister is being judgmental, he reassures us:

“I am not going to be judgmental about people who decide to have an abortion. In the end, it’s a matter for the individual facing those circumstances to decide.”

Health Minister Tony Abbott, “Babies Inconvenient for Some

Now, given the quote earlier about the point being to ‘ensure a woman’s decision is really her own’, combined with the fact that both the Minister and Prime Minister John Howard have indicated they both hope and believe that this hotline will reduce the number of abortions performed in Australia, it’s rather obvious that the general idea from Abbott and Howard is that only women having abortions could possibly be so beholden to social conditioning, and all those women choosing not to terminate must be strong and decisive in the face of social pressure. No, that’s not judgmental at all. Neither is comparing women who have abortions to alcoholics and gambling addicts. Except for the part where, y’know, it is.

Just in case we weren’t sure where the hotline’s likely to stand, the contracts to provide counsellors have gone to Centacare (the health and welfare arm of the Catholic Church) and The Caroline Chisholm Society (another organisation philosophically opposed to abortion). Balanced? Non-directive? To be fair, the hotline isn’t up and running, so one can’t make evaluations of something that hasn’t yet occurred, but in all honesty, given the political goals and the attitudes that have informed the set-up, I’ll be remarkably and pleasantly surprised if the hotline is as unbiased and independent as the Government continues to assure us it will be.

Other information:
*In 2005, a Bill was put forward to (in the main) require pregnancy counselling services to clearly indicate they they did not refer women to organisations that provide for any of the three options, if that was the case. The Senate Committee Report from last year examining the Bill can be found here. It’s an interesting read, if wading through government documents is your thing. I’m a dork, and this issue is part of my volunteering work at the moment, so it is.
* What’s interesting about the above report is the number of anti-choice organisations who are convinced that those who put the Bill forward have no intention of penalising organisations who don’t refer women to organisations that assist with continuing the pregnancy and raising the resultant child, or adoption. I wonder if part of the reason behind this is that they’re, well, projecting. Whilst this lawmaker isn’t Australian, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised at the existence of those with similar views here, even if they perhaps were not as blatant about it.

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6 thoughts on “I'm not going to be judgmental, I'm just judging you.

  1. I found this link over at another blog for a book entitled When Abortion was a Crime. I haven’t gotten into it very far, but I’m thinking it already gives lie to the idea that there was ever this magical “once upon a time” where women didn’t demand the right to make decisions about their own bodies. Unfortunately, the book is very US-centric.

    Large numbers are always trotted out to shock people into making moral judgements. They don’t say “nearly one hundred thousand women’s lives are better because they can have this elective surgery”, they just put this huge number next to a word which is coded by politicians, religious institutions, and the media to be a negative word. People do this with divorce statistics as well, they never say “bad marriages are down by fifty percent”, they merely place a startlingly large percentage next to the word ‘divorce’ and then continue to preach about how divorce will be the undoing of the moral fabric of society.

    Abbot’s coloring of abortion as a “tragedy for all involved” ignores the very positive effect that safe and legal abortions has on the lives of women who choose to have them. Every time I hear the best medical decision I ever made being touted as a tragedy, I point the person to “Abortion is Wonderful”. Abortion is a choice, not in the same way that gambling and drinking are, but in the way that chosing to have any surgery to remove an unwanted growth is. Yes, for the women who do not want to have a child, those for whom carrying a child to term would be dangerous, deadly, or detrimental to their mental health, it’s the same as having your appendix out. How a woman choses to feel about the surgery is entirely her business, constantly spouting off about ‘tragedy’ serves only to stigmatize what is ultimately just another medical proceedure. Abbot should shut his trap and actually listen to some woman tell him what abortion has meant to her, how it has affected her life. Investing emotionally in a potential person (or the cells that may form a potential person) while witholding emotional support from an actual person is pathologically cruel.

    People like Abbot make me want to never stop banging my head against my desk.

  2. Godless Heathen: Yeah, I’ve got that book on my repro-rights to-read list, after some more locally-oriented stuff. I’ve just started The Politics of Reproduction, which is rathermore looking at the sort of language and such surrounding abortion debates in Australia.

    Abbott really really shits me. A couple of years ago, he was approached by this young guy (late teens, I believe) claiming to the his son, who he and a woman Abbott had sex with when he was younger had adopted out (it later turned out it wasn’t his son ‘cos the woman slept with someone else), and there was this big media thing, and he had this smarmy comment about how the guy wasn’t angry at him for adopting him out, but ‘glad to have been given a chance at life’ or some such garbage. I wanted to stab myself in the eye. Plus he’s still got a bone to pick because parliament voted to take away his power to veto RU-486’s approval for use in Australia, and give it to the TGA to decide, which is apparently some great tragedy, cos it’s not like the TGA is responsible for approving all the other medications. Particularly when Abbott’s not a doctor.

    Being perfectly honest? I know the ‘just a medical procedure’ stuff has it’s place and is definitely useful in breaking down that stigma, but I think there’s also an important place for acknowledging that women can feel sad about their abortion without that meaning she regrets it, or it being a tragedy, or whatever. And I think a part of that comes down to actually listening to women’s stories and giving women the space to talk about what these things mean to them, which just doesn’t happen often enough, because of the stigma, and because of general resistance to women’s own stories. But yeah, I think “Investing emotionally in a potential person (or the cells that may form a potential person) while witholding emotional support from an actual person is pathologically cruel.” is really the crux of it. Because I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with emotionally investing in a potential person, but it’s when that latter part comes into play that it gets to be a problem.

  3. “I think there’s also an important place for acknowledging that women can feel sad about their abortion without that meaning she regrets it”

    I agree with you on that point, I really do. Any woman who wants to talk about how her abortion affected her, I want her to talk, and I want to listen. I don’t want to go around telling women how to feel about what they go through (on any subject). But it’s usually not those women who are going around labling the procedure. Most of the time it’s men, be they politicians, religious leaders, or liberal allies, who bemoan the tragic nature of someone else’s choice. Well meaning as a few may be, giving voice for women they know who struggled with their choices, we still focus more on what other people think about abortion and not enough about what actual women who have gone through the procedure feel.

    I get stigmatized for declaring that I didn’t feel sorry, guilty or traumatized for having had an abortion. I get stigmatized for claiming that, my personal experience, it was just a clump of cells I had removed. Because we’ve built up this cultural narrative that says that all abortions are tragic, and we let this cultural narrative shame women who have made medical decisions about their bodies. All I wish is for the procedure to be neutral so that we can hear all women when they talk about what they went through.

  4. People like Abbot make me want to never stop banging my head against my desk.

    I think banging his head against the desk is a better plan.

  5. I feel that too, Sunless.

    Since his position is not consistent with the best expert advice provided to him through the health department, his continued tenure suggests that he has some popular support and important political allies.

    Although bigotry, insensitivity and hypocrisy are galling, this is not a matter of just one politician or party. For at least a decade up to last year, Australian elections have been fought and won on ‘wedge’ strategies: demonising minority interests and appealing to tribalism of the privileged majority. Proven harm minimisation measures have been wound back or threatened in favour of stigmatising or criminalisation – e.g. abortion, contraception for teenagers, sex education, drug rehabilitation, needle-exchanges, refugee services, union and employee rights, social security, environment, indigenous rights and services.

    Depressing, really.

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