When abortion is legal

Monday, March 4, 1991

By Gunhild Jonsson

I had one too — an oral history of abortion in South Australia before 1970 by Barbara Baird is a study that grew out of the public debate about a private member's bill introduced (and narrowly defeated) in South Australia in 1988.

There is at present another private member's bill before the SA parliament aimed at preventing autonomous abortion clinics being established in Adelaide. In this climate of continuing attacks on women's abortion rights, it is important for women to discover our history in this respect, and Barbara's study aims to help us do that.

"There are lots of aspects of the history of women that have never been recorded", said Barbara, "and abortion as a particular case is something that has been very little documented. So what this piece of research does is start to fill in a bit of a gap that has existed."

There was very little documentary evidence about how abortions were carried out and what was available for women before 1970. "It is only by getting women to tell their own stories that we've been able to look at what an answer might be to that question. What the project is trying to do is break the silence about women's experience of abortion when abortion was illegal and fill in that gap of women's history.

"Moving from there into a more political agenda, I think the purpose of the research has been to put women's experiences and women's bodies back into the centre of the contemporary abortion debate and to remind people what women's experiences are when abortion is illegal."

In interviewing the nine women for the project, Barbara found that class background was "the main determinant of the kind of abortion she got". The five women who came from middle-class backgrounds all had abortions performed by doctors interstate. The four working-class women participating in the study all aborted themselves or had a backyard abortion.

"Backyard abortionists were not always the kind of monster butcher that we have been led to believe", Barbara discovered. Most of them were nurses or midwives who performed a service for working-class women. Many of these women performed the abortions quite competently in supportive surroundings. Backyard abortions were also a lot less expensive than medical abortions, which also included the expense of travelling interstate.

"Another myth is about the numbers of abortions." Research has shown that many women had abortions before it was legalised. It is not possible to know exactly how many, but estimates made before the 1970 legislation "indicate that the number of women in SA having abortions in the late '60s is about the same as the number of women having abortions in the late '80s".

Barbara was struck that the "determination of the women that I talked to was overwhelming. Even though abortion was illegal, and even though having an abortion was something maybe they didn't like or it involved risks to their health, they were still absolutely determined that they the pregnancy. That really stands out to me.

"The point is, when abortion is not legal women still have abortions and we're seeing they still have abortions in the same numbers. It's just that the consequences are devastating — of the illegality; the medical consequences of trying to abort yourself or of a poorly performed backyard abortion; the social consequences, the legal consequences are terrible for women when abortion isn't legal. But they still have abortions."

"The thing I would like to come out of the research as well as making a contribution to the general debate is to encourage women to tell their own stories of illegal abortion of the 1960s and '50s and '40s. And also to tell the stories of their abortions now. Lots of women have abortions, need them and get them one way or another."

I had one too is available from the Family Planning Association of SA Library, 17 Phillips St, Kensington SA 5068 for $10.

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