The leafy street in the regional Australian town of Albury, housing the local abortion clinic, is a picturesque one. And, until very recently, it was normal to see a group of people praying on the pavement on a Thursday morning, Rosary beads in hand. One or two accompanying life advocates would quietly approach the women who were escorted inside the building by security guards, offering them a choice other than pregnancy termination.
Not only did they offer a choice, but practical support too. They referred these women to a local support organisation established primarily to help women experiencing unplanned pregnancy. The Women’s Life Centre, located in a nearby suburb, offers many confidential services including counselling, post abortion grief counselling, liaison with government and educational bodies, as well as financial and practical assistance through donated goods.
In June this year the New South Wales (NSW) State Government passed legislation that enforces a 150m “safe access zone” around all abortion clinics – this despite the fact that abortion is still technically illegal in the state of NSW – meaning that these prayerful witnesses and counsellors are now unable to offer support to women intending to have an abortion, outside these clinics.
And why is this such a loss for the pro-life movement? Certainly these prayers can be undertaken elsewhere, but for many women abortion is not the result of an exercising of choice but rather an absence of one. And not being allowed at the forefront of this battle for choice effectively weakens their practical witness to, and offer of, other choices for women experiencing unplanned pregnancy.
Statistics for the reasons women have abortions are inconsistently recorded from country to country. However, statistics featured in studies undertaken in the U.S and Australia suggest that ‘elective reasons’ account for over 90% of all abortions.
Elective reasons included: economic reasons, mother’s age considered too young, single mother, career/education concerns, lack of practical support, mother has enough children already and sex selective or selective reduction.
The nature of these elective reasons backs up the assertion by many in the pro-life industry that a large majority of women seek abortion because they feel as though they have no other option.
In fact, data collected through the Real Choices Project in the U.S. and Women Exploited by Abortion suggest that as many as 83% of women would not have followed through with their abortion if they felt they had the support to keep the pregnancy. If this data is to be believed, and there is no reason to suggest otherwise, this means that women are, in many cases, effectively being coerced into abortion.
This might be subtle in some cases, but up to 64% of women surveyed for a study on abortion in the U.S. felt pressured to have an abortion. Whether this is overt or subtle is not indicated, but it is both a form of coercion and a worrying statistic.
Abortion coercion has been a malingering topic in Australia, particularly within the code of Rugby League. In 2017 two players, Bryce Cartwright and Tim Simona were accused of coercing their respective partners to abort their children. Moral outrage rightly followed.
At a more local level a news report late last year demonstrated an alarming example of coercion and solidified in the minds of local pro-life defenders that their advocacy is vital. It is interesting to note that the man mentioned in the article received a 12 month good behaviour bond and community service. Since the recent “safe access zone” laws came into effect, any pro-life advocate offering to give that woman help as she approached the abortion clinic would cop a $5,500 fine or a 6 month jail term for a first offence and 12 months for a second.
But, of course, these cases were incredibly clear cut and involved payments and relationship breakdowns. In other situations the coercion is less obvious. Certainly, partners play a big role in the decision to keep or terminate a pregnancy and, for a certain demographic, mothers have a big influence too. In fact, the prayerful volunteers in Albury observed that it was often the women’s mother who accompanied her into the clinic, and the partner who steered her away from the counsellors when he sensed her reluctance to continue with the abortion.
So then, if we accept that women might make different decisions if they felt supported in their choice, why is it that pro-choice activists are so resistant to pro-life groups, especially those who offer practical guidance and support to women experiencing unplanned pregnancy?
This reasoning is harder to ascertain but there is no doubt that the pro-choice and pro-life battles rage with increasing degrees of vitriol. The battle in Albury reached ridiculous levels of personal and professional attacks that resulted in incredible suffering for pro-life advocates and culminated in a defamation case. In this case, the pro-life advocates were victorious and the man found guilty of defamation gave an apology in the Victorian Supreme Court on May 31, 2017. The whole saga gained national media attention and other related legal cases are currently navigating their way through the court system.
One of the organisations that found themselves under an incredible attack from pro-choice forces was The Women’s Life Centre (WLC). As I mentioned earlier in this article, the organisation was formed based on the reality of women choosing abortion because they felt they had no support. The WLC, like many other similar organisations globally, offers practical and emotional support to women experiencing unplanned pregnancy.
Should a woman come to the centre and outline an ‘elective’ reason for considering abortion, qualified counsellors discuss all options – though they do not refer for abortion, its consequences are discussed including the offer of post abortion grief counselling should they choose that option – and offer unconditional and confidential support.
Ultimately, the decision is made by the woman and her partner, and the WLC help as needed whether this is through negotiating payment for medical care, helping to defer or alter study programs, providing practical items such as cots and prams or counselling women after they chose to terminate their pregnancy.
At face value, it would seem that the pro-choice movement could have little to complain about – although one might assume that they are not impressed that the WLC does not refer for abortions. Yet, as evidenced by media reports and legal proceedings that battle waged in this corner of regional Australia was venomous.
The prayerful witnesses in Albury, who are often affiliated with the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants, were dubbed ‘anti-abortion protestors’, verbally and physically attacked, and accused of telling women attending the clinic they would ‘go to hell’. The latter one is vehemently denied by the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants and one would think that if they were praying the Rosary that hell would be mentioned but not in the way it is implied here. In fact, aside from the life advocates who approach the women in a quiet and respectful way, the others only pray. Prayerful volunteers who don’t follow this conduct would be asked to amend their behaviour or refrain from coming for fear of further inflaming the increasingly tense situation.
Is it then, because the ‘protestors’ do not support abortion that they are so viciously attacked? For if their interests and motivation are truly with supporting women, and helping them keep their pregnancies if that is what they want, are they not then only providing another choice and a valid one at that?
One of the greatest criticisms of the pro-life movement, from people outside it, is that they care too much about the babies and not enough about the mothers. Yet, the WLC and many other organisations besides, have proven through their work that they seek to support women.
What then, is the issue?
If we are to suggest that every woman has the right to choose, how can we expect her to make an informed decision if we only promote one choice? This situation is further inflamed by reducing the pro-life movement to the narrower label of being ‘anti-abortion’. Certainly, the pro-life movement does not support abortion for a myriad of reasons, but reducing their respect for the dignity of all life to a small part of a bigger picture is a gross injustice. But, for the pro-abortion activists perhaps it is the only way they can justify their opposing position; ie. you’re either for us or against us.
Rationally speaking if both sides are, as each claim to be, looking after the best interests of the women involved, there should be more common ground and less vitriol. Yet, anyone can see that battle lines have been clearly and decisively drawn.
And the casualties of war are the women themselves, the women facing an unexpected pregnancy who are in desperate need of help and support. The women coerced into decisions that will leave many of them with a lifetime of regret; offered as collateral damage to the pro-choice agenda.
It is high time that the rhetoric around the rights and choices of women became exactly what it claims to be: pro-woman, regardless of whether you’re for or against abortion.
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