The new US Administration has just reinstated a “gag order” that prevents funding to foreign NGO’s that offer abortion as part of their services. I posted a meme in response, a quick, satirical jab at what is an incredibly complex, and deeply human issue. It caused some consternation. Here’s a more considered response.
The first time my voice was ever published, was in the Sydney Morning Herald. I was twelve, and had written a letter to the editor. There, under the bold heading “YOUTH WRITES”, were my words, written in defence of the unborn, after a science class where we examined the foetus of a sheep, sourced from the local abbatoir. The foetus was a perfectly formed, delicate, mini-sheep. Hairless except for its beautiful eyelashes, it appeared to be sleeping. It was clearly, absolutely, fully “sheep”. No formless glob of cells there. This thing had an identity, had clearly been viable, and its one, miraculous life had been cut short. Abortion, I reasoned, was clearly murder. How could anyone end something as precious as a developing human life?
Now, at age 51, my perspective is more nuanced. I’ve never been in the position to need abortion services. My children were planned, and desperately wanted. I don’t see pregnancy termination as an easy or desirable option for anyone. Actually, I don’t know a single person who does. And I value human life and potential. However, this is not a decision I feel I could ever make, for another woman.
When I was sixteen, if I had found myself that awkward position, there’s no doubt I would have continued the pregnancy. I had supportive (and pro-life) parents, and a loving community surrounding me. I also lived in a country that provided benefits and services for each child born. There was an inspirational student in my HSC cohort, in fact, who had left school to have a child, and was returning to further her own education. I don’t know where she is now, but chances are, she’s had a fulfilling, normal life, and so has her little girl. But this is Australia. We have so many choices and options - SO much support. Still, that doesn’t mean life choices are simple for everyone. Even here, the stereotype that I once held, of the typical “abortion seeker” – a selfish, irresponsible woman who perhaps thought more highly of her career prospects than a precious human life – is far from accurate. Not everyone has the social support, family and psychological stability, emotional capability, physical health, or in some cases the maturity (think of your average twelve year old!) to cope with parenthood. Or even pregnancy leading to adoption. To anyone in this privileged, bountiful country of mine, who is facing, or has faced, the difficult choice of whether to continue a pregnancy in difficult circumstances – you have my heart, not my judgment. I know that life is rarely simple, and that what looks, in purely ideological terms, so black and white, just isn’t.
But let’s leave Australia and the developed world out of this, for a moment. After all, the contentious US Gag Rule applies to NGO’s working in developing countries. Places where what we might consider “grey areas” shade very quickly to black. If we, in our first world comfort zone, still have situations where pregnancy is a disastrous outcome (and we do!) How much more is this multiplied in the third world? In places where child marriage may be commonplace, rape endemic, and poverty crushing and intractable, how appropriate is it, to push an ideal of sacred human life and sacrificial motherhood? Is that really all you would give, to a ten year old child bride, a young rape victim, or even an impoverished mother of seven, without the health to carry a child safely, or the means to feed the children she already has?
US funding does not, and never has, directly funded abortion services. However it has provided desperately needed health care and access to contraception to places that would otherwise have none. Many of the organisations who receive this funding also use privately sourced funds to provide abortion services when needed. They do this, whilst simultaneously working to provide care, contraception and education in order to prevent unplanned pregnancy. The “Gag Rule” does not pull funding from abortion services. It pulls it from health, education and contraceptive access, in places that often have no other avenues. All because of an ideal that simply does not fit a convoluted world. And all to win the approval and votes of people who applaud airy ideals, oblivious of real-life complexities.