There’s more to abortion access than decriminalisation

A few years ago, I got a coat hanger tattoo on my ankle. It was International Safe Abortion Day and I got this simple image printed permanently on my body.

I told my friends about it, and with a brief explanation, they got it. They understood why I felt it was important. They believe in the personal being political, they understand that not everyone has equal access to basic medical services, and they know from well-worn stories the lengths that people will go to when they are in desperate need of something that their medical, social, and/or a governmental system won’t provide.

My friends never questioned my decision to mark my body with a reminder that, while I protect and provide access to safe abortion for people in Sydney, I know that more than one million women and pregnant people every year will access unsafe abortion as their only option to take control of their lives. They were supportive of me. And while they felt it was a bit ‘extra’, they’ve never made me feel uncomfortable about my decision.

And I’ve never felt uncomfortable about my decision. Not when my great-aunt asked me about it and then told me that she writes letters to her local MP to ask that more be done ‘to protect the innocent babies’.

Not when the loud teenager at the beach approached me with a light-hearted joking tone, asking if I was ‘really into fashion or something’. And I watched as his face turned to dread as I replied, ‘no, I’m really into safe abortion access for all, and this is a reminder of how much more work there is to be done’.

Not when a company CEO pressured me for a more global context, or when a celebrity talked about using one on herself in the 70s in New York, or when I read about the inhumane practices that doctors used on women in Sydney less than 100 years ago.

I made a decision that impacts my body forever that — even when they didn’t agree — no one could make me feel guilty or ashamed of. That’s my privilege.

Over the weekend I was enjoying a celebratory drink with friends, marking the decriminalisation of abortion in New South Wales (and International Safe Abortion Day). One of my friends said that I can get my tattoo removed now, that there’s no more need for politicking and we can all get back to work. He slyly made reference to the fact that my job won’t actually change, nor will the care that my clients receive.

It turns out this friend, who is incredibly sincere, charitable, and open to seeing, calling out, and addressing so much inequity in our world, doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand that stigma is just as effective at suppressing access as many physical barriers.

He doesn’t realise that abortion is still in the criminal code in South Australia. That any state election, at any time, could overturn the access we fought so hard to win. That while legislation helps, cost, distance, and reproductive coercion can all present just as much of a barrier as criminalisation.

He doesn’t understand that abortion is under very real and dangerous threat locally and globally. He doesn’t appreciate why access to this basic medical procedure is so important, particularly in a landscape as vast and unforgiving as Australia.

He can’t imagine a world where he would need to access this service, and hasn’t empathised with the emotional and physical discomfort of requesting one, of feeling like he has to justify his reasons.

He doesn’t exist in a world where his decisions are under scrutiny and question, where being told what to want, what to expect, what to do causes a daily dilemma between disappointing oneself or disappointing others.

So, in celebration of NSW Abortion Law Reform, of International Safe Abortion Day, of teaching your friends, and leaning in to their optimism as well as their naivety, I’m raising my ankle up high.
It will always be there as a reminder to never feel ashamed for confronting and dismantling stigma, privilege and prejudice. It will always be there, representing my ongoing fight to enshrine and preserve abortion as a human right for all.

Kitty is the Nurse Unit Manager for Marie Stopes Australia’s Sydney Metro clinics.

Marie Stopes Australia is the leading, accredited, national provider for abortion, contraception and vasectomy.

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