[Content/Trigger Warning: Abortion]
Words || Mariah Hanna
Last year my friend had an abortion.
It happens to 1 in 3 women so it was bound to happen to one of us. We’re in our early twenties so it was a given that at some point the dreaded “guys I think I’m pregnant” text would come through in the group chat and this time it wouldn’t just be post-coitus paranoia.
It’s something that every woman has thought about since becoming sexually active, whether she will admit to it or not, whether she is pro-choice or pro-life. The first time the conversation came up amongst my friend group was in high school, sweltering in our school mandated wool skirts on the oval, pretending not to watch boys play rugby at lunch time.
At fifteen, most of us virgins, it was an almost unanimous ‘no’ from each of us when someone asked if we’d ever get an abortion. Of course, since then we have experienced the real world and sex first hand and changed our tunes.
The concept of unplanned pregnancy and subsequent abortion became a little more real. By the age of twenty, when posed with that same question, the consensus amongst my peers was an almost unthinking ‘yes’. Somewhat ironically, the age of twenty was also the age I discovered that abortion was not completely legal in Australia.
It was a few years ago that I’d started a new job in Surry Hills and I’d make the trek up Devonshire from Central Station each day. The first time I noticed the middle-aged woman with a sandwich board sign with archaic images of dead babies plastered over it, draped over her body, I didn’t realise she was standing in front of an abortion clinic. I remember feeling shocked and disgusted as I marched to work, and I later retold the story of the woman to my friend, both of us angered that someone would stand on a street like that shaming women who walked past.
Now, years later, I’m interviewing Paul Nattrass, the practice manager of the Surry Hills Private Clinic. We’re crammed into a tiny room that seems to be confused by which function it is supposed to serve. I’m on a double-seated red sofa that’s shoved against a wall, and two steps away is a small kitchenette with a sink and kettle. Every few minutes the pipes groan as hot water makes its way around the clinic. There is no window in here, and the florescent lights give Paul’s skin a slightly grey hue.
The first time I spoke to Paul was via email, when he told me to come meet him early the following Tuesday. He gave me a specific time frame as to respect the privacy of the patients, as the clinic is usually quiet at that time, but it’s not the only reason. “If you want to see the protestors, they’re usually outside on Tuesdays between 8.30am-10am,” his email read.
When I arrived, there were three women of various ages, and one young man standing at the entrance. The man had rosary beads in his hands, and as I approached, everyone began singing what sounded like hymns. They’re all familiar faces to me. I’ve been walking past them for years. Everyone looked up as I reached the entrance, but it was only the lady with the blue bag that spoke up. “Save your baby!” She yelled at my back as I waited to be buzzed in.
“She carries this big blue bag with all of her rolled up signs and…” Paul says, pausing as he searches for the right word. “And… paraphernalia. And in that bag, the police tell me, is a letter from a magistrate at the local court that says the signs are… I think the words they used are, ‘the signs are graphic, but not offensive,’” he finally decides, his knee bouncing nervously.
He steeples his fingers and continues to bounce his knee, making his whole body shake on the office chair he’s wheeled into the room to sit across from me. I can tell he’s a reflective man, because he pauses every few minutes to ruminate on what he’s going to say next, testing the words in his mind before they leave his tongue.
Surry Hills Private Clinic is a reproductive health clinic that performs pregnancy terminations, as well a number of medical procedures for women’s reproductive health. The clinic has been operating for almost forty years, establishing in Woollahra before relocating to Surry Hills in 2003. Tucked away behind a concealed entrance on Devonshire Street, you could walk straight past it without noticing. The only tip off that 120 Devonshire Street is different to the surrounding small businesses, cafes, or residencies, is the presence of a smattering of protesters that linger on either side of the foot path.
Abortion is an issue that has lost popularity in Australian politics in recent years, mostly due to the fairly accessible nature of abortions. However, it may come to a surprise to most people that abortion in New South Wales is still illegal under the Crimes Act, unless it is decided by a doctor that a pregnancy could cause mental or physical harm to a woman. But this only further perpetuates the age old narrative that another person is better equipped to decide what is or is not necessary for a woman, without considering that a woman should be making that decision for herself.
Earlier in the year Ireland held an historic referendum to legalise abortion, something which brought a sometimes volatile but no less important global conversation on the necessity of easy access to reproductive healthcare services, and, perhaps most importantly, the importance of a woman’s right to choose what she does with her own body. It’s still shocking to me that Australia, a nation that is seemingly progressive when it comes to women’s rights and equality, is so far behind.
There remains a stigma surrounding women’s reproductive and sexual health, and the displays like the one in front of the Private Clinic only reinforce this stigma. The Private Clinic isn’t the only clinic to have protesters camp out in front, and pro-lifers aren’t the only protest group either. Pro-choice counter protesters often stake out the clinic, offering support to the women who enter the building.
“The counter protesters are trying to help, but I can’t help but think it’d be better if there was no use in them being here either. Women are distressed when they come in. It’s already a stressful situation – they don’t need politics on top of it,” Paul says.
After the interview Paul takes me through the facility, but I’ve been inside this clinic before. When the message came through, the Surry Hills Private Clinic was the first place my friends and I thought of, and after a GP referred her, my friend scheduled her abortion.
I offered to go with my friend and I told her about a place I had also seen every single week directly across the road from the clinic. While I won’t reveal the name, the front signage says they provide support for women pre and post abortion and the website detailed the type of support they offered. That website has since been removed, but it still remains.
I called this organisation, and told a woman about my friend and her plans to terminate. I told her that I didn’t really know how to support my friend as I’d never experienced this type of thing before. She gave me a lot of information about the benefits of their organisation for women as they prepared for termination and she asked me to encourage my friend to see her the day before her scheduled appointment.
I told my friend about the woman I spoke to and passed on her details. My friend was thankful and happy to have some third party support and scheduled a time to meet with her.
After her appointment– the day before her abortion – she hesitantly told me that it was not the support organisation we thought it was. It was in fact, a pro-life organisation and the woman she met with wore a gold cross around her neck and tried to intimidate her with false statistics about abortion.
Because we are millennials, the entire pre/post abortion period was spoken about in jokes and memes and occasionally a very serious ‘but really, are you okay?’. And she was okay. But she was fortunate enough to live in a very liberal part of Sydney, and to have accepting and non-judgemental friends who were there to support her. There are women in Australia who have no such support system, and these are the types of vulnerable women targeted by organisations who are not transparent about their intentions. These are the women who are facing the empathy-lacking men standing out the front of abortion clinics with posters of dead babies, telling her she will go to hell for making choices about her own body.
The week that I spoke with Paul Nattrass, a bill was due to be put forward to the senate that would ban protests within 150 meters of any clinic that performs abortions in NSW. When I asked if he was optimistic that the bill would pass, a tight smile pulled at Paul’s lips.
“Cautiously optimistic. This bill is different from bills in the past, because it’s not directed at law reform for the legality of abortion. It’s exclusively about protests in front of the clinics. At the end of the day, protecting the patients that come in here is my top priority. I can deal with being abused and called a murderer or what have you, but it’s not fair that vulnerable women are being attacked for something that is essentially, their decision.”
As it so happened, after years of trying to implement safe access zones the bill was passed, and now the Surry Hills protesters stand 150 meters up the road, singing hymns and passing rosary beads to passersby. It’s a small victory, but abortion remains a crime in New South Wales and Queensland. How many years will it be before women are given the right to choose completely autonomously what they do with their bodies?