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It feels like we only go backwards...

Content Warning: Abortion, sexual abuse.

Image credit @plannedparenthood

Alabama State legislators have passed new and widely condemned legislation criminalising abortion after a fetal heartbeat has been detected. This deadline can pass at just six weeks. The news made my heart ache and my tweets fill with rage, but it wasn’t just me. The news hit a nerve with women and activists around the world. Here’s what we can do to ensure our own reproductive rights.

Alabama is not the first, and it isn’t the last, to subjugate women’s reproductive rights to the ‘right to life’: Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio and Georgia have instituted similar legislation over the past few weeks. Sixteen more states in the US want to bring onerous restrictions to abortion in their jurisdictions.

The Alabama law is intended to come into effect in six months but many activists are looking to the US Federal Courts to rule the laws unconstitutional. These are the same courts that saw abortion legalised across the country in Roe v Wade, which found women in the US had a right to abortion enshrined in the constitution.

Norma McCorvey was the pseudonymic Roe in the famous court case. McCorvey wanted an abortion but was unable to attain one legally or illegally. Four years after lawyers discovered her plight, Roe v Wade was handed down. In the meantime, her pregnancy was carried to term and another child was put up for adoption. She was never able to have the abortion she’d fought for.

One in three women in Australia will have an abortion in their lifetime, and fortunately our right to do so did not require such a lengthy court case. As Roe v Wade snaked slowly through the court system, private clinics popped up across Australia to provide abortions. These were permitted through pieces of state legislation that have passed like patches in a quilt over the last 40 years.

While abortions are available before 14 weeks across Australia, there are caveats sprinkled through to make the topic a legal minefield. In all states but the ACT, the medical procedure remains in the realm of criminal law. While generally treated as lawful, it remains criminalised in NSW.

Barbara Baird, an Associate Professor at Flinders University, argues that abortion is not adequately incorporated into the health system, to the detriment of disadvantaged and rural women. There is still a need for activism on reproductive rights: publicly available abortion is almost non-existent in NSW and does not not exist in Tasmania. Most services are available only in metropolitan areas.

This can be seen in the ACT, with only two approved locations for surgical abortion and one location - in Queanbeyan - for medical abortion. The ACT Greens member Caroline Le Couter attempted to address this in a 2018 amendment, which expands on the facilities and medical personnel who can provide medical abortions.

As southern US states from Alabama to Ohio repeal their abortion laws with greater radicalism and cruelty, Australia seems to be moving forward across many jurisdictions to provide more choice to those who need it. As US residents look longingly at our patchwork abortion laws, perhaps we Australians can look to the US’ advocacy.

As the abortion laws passed last week, women began to speak out on social media. #youknowme put faces and stories to the statistic of 1⁄4 women attaining an abortion in the US. It personalised the issue in a common advocacy tactic designed to humanise those attached to a morally contentious issue. Stories began with justifications: I wasn’t ready. I was assaulted. I was pregnant with four, and the prognosis was grim. I was being abused. I would have died if I’d carried to term.

And as always with twitter, the simple hashtag threw up some more nuanced discussions around abortion. As 87,000 twitter users shared their story, many more began to do so without listing a reason. More and more people asserted that they did not need a reason to have an abortion, outlining the basic human respect and right to choice behind abortion legalisation.

Like with #metoo, gendered violence and policy has been addressed and responded to with personal stories. In order to grapple with the effects of sexist behaviour, women have put themselves on the social media firing line. Just like they don’t need to publicise a reason, individuals should not have to share potentially traumatic events in a personal space.

More positive, less problematic posts turned up on Reddit with promises to join the “Auntie Network”. Come stay with Auntie, they say. However as 90% of counties in the US do not have abortion services, such services have been available for a long time. The National Network of Abortion Funds connects those who need an abortion with financial and logistical services to make it happen.

Since 2000, Australian association Children by Choice have been attempting the same, providing funds for the procedure, and associated travel and accommodation. On their website they say: “we cannot fund the entirety of any one woman's abortion procedure, or provide support to each woman who requests it.” They recommend rescheduling household bills and pawning possessions in order to make procedure payments. They ask for donations.

So if the news from Alabama makes you thank your lucky stars, think again. The political tide in Australia swells in the favour of reproductive rights, but that doesn’t mean disadvantaged Australians have access to the choices they need to make. Make a change to help that happen.

- Bella Dimattina

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