6 Weeks

The complex web between anti-abortion laws and sexual health

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Words || Katelyn Free

Abortion is a sexual health topic. Depending on your spiritual or political beliefs, it may also involve the life of another human who is unborn. But it unquestionably involves the life of a sexually active woman and man. 

The anti-abortion laws currently being passed in several conservative states in the US show an increasing legislative intervention in the sexual health of individuals. But what does it mean to have access to abortion limited? And what are the sexual health repercussions of these laws?

In the US, there is a constitutional right to abortion until a foetus is considered viable that was established in a 1973 Supreme Court case titled Roe v Wade. The goal of anti-abortion activists in America is to overturn that decision. 

Any law that fundamentally opposes Roe v Wade, if it is enforced, will likely be challenged and taken to the Supreme Court. In ordinary circumstances it would be ruled as unconstitutional and struck out, but with the appointment of Brett Kavanagh on the Supreme Court bench, the balance has shifted to conservative judges. 

This makes it more likely that the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v Wade and has resulted in anti-abortion laws popping up through the conservative states.

Under the law passed in Alabama, abortion is only legal if the mother’s life is at risk or the foetus cannot survive. Doctors who perform abortions could go to prison for 99 years. The law offers no exception for rape or incest victims. States which followed in the wake of Alabama, including Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio and Mississippi, have introduced ‘heartbeat bans’, which allow abortion, but only within the first six weeks of pregnancy.

Six weeks. While there is plenty of space for discourse about the other facets of the laws, the one which maybe best demonstrates the kaleidoscope of sexual health issues involved in this legislation is the outlawing of abortions where a foetus is over six weeks old. 

Pregnancy is not measured from the actual point of conception. It is measured from a woman’s last menstrual period. This means that by the time a woman’s period is one week late, she is considered five weeks pregnant. If a woman doesn’t realise her period is late until after two weeks have passed, she has missed her window for an abortion.

This six-week timeframe relies heavily on females being extremely well educated on the nuances of their menstrual cycle and having access to contraception and means of monitoring their cycle. For women to access abortion within the legal timeframe they must have both comprehensive education and have financial means. Both of which are a product of privilege. 

In the state which kick started the anti-abortion laws, Alabama, sex education is not required in schools. Schools that do teach sex education are required to emphasize abstinence but can include information about different methods of contraception. The state has some of the highest rates of teen pregnancy and STI rates in the US.

Alabama is the sixth poorest state in the US. 17.2 per cent of the population live below the federal poverty line (the national average is 14 per cent).

These laws, which rely heavily on comprehensive sexual education and financial privilege began in a state with no mandated sexual education and a high rate of poverty.

Limited access to abortion shifts pressure to sexual health education. It places extreme importance on individuals having consensual sex who do not want children, not getting pregnant (this of course does not include victims of sexual violence). But unless states support comprehensive sexual health education, this pressure gives way and individuals are stranded in a place with limited productive discussion about sexual health and extremely limited options if they find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy. 

Similarly, limited access to abortion shifts pressure to financial ability. In order to have access to effective contraception and menstrual cycle monitoring tools, women must have a financial supply which allows them to access these services. According to Planned Parenthood, birth control pills can cost up to US$50 per month. And depending on a women’s physical response to certain types of contraception, she may have no choice but to use a form of contraception which carries a higher price tag. Contraception relies upon financial means and financial privilege.

When education and financial means fail, and access to abortion is limited, women who need abortions must step outside the law, and safe medical practice to terminate their pregnancy.

In New South Wales abortion is explicitly listed as a crime under sections 82 to 84 of the Crimes Act 1900. But case law has made abortion legal if a doctor has an honest and reasonable belief that, due to ‘any economic, social or medical ground or reason’, the abortion is necessary to ‘preserve the woman involved from serious danger to her life or physical or mental health which the continuance of the pregnancy would entail’. These health concerns might be considered from the duration of pregnancy to any period during the woman’s life, even after the birth of the child. 

Women are able to access abortion with relative ease in New South Wales, however they must first see a doctor who will authorise the abortion, which is subject to the woman’s situation fulfilling these certain requirements.

The NSW Education Standards Authority mandates sexual education in all schools, however the exact nuances and comprehensiveness of the education, outside of the bare minimum requirements outlined in the curriculum, is up to the discretion of schools. For example, I didn’t know until I was 19 that if you’re on the pill, anti-biotics will stop its effectiveness. Thankfully, I was not getting down and dirty in high school, but if I was, I don’t think the consequences would have been pretty. 

According to the Australian Council of Social Service in 2018, 13.2% of Australians live below the poverty line. While this is not as comparatively high as other countries, there are still a significant number of Australians who would struggle to have financial means to access comprehensive contraception. 

Six weeks. In New South Wales we do not have this restriction. We have mandated sexual education and relative financial means to access sexual health services. However, in the states in the US where these six weeks counts the most, sexual education and financial ability are at a low. Six weeks with limited education and limited sexual health education and options. Six weeks.