Suzy Freeman-Greene reviews 'Choice Words: A collection of writing about abortion' edited by Louise Swinn

Suzy Freeman-Greene reviews 'Choice Words: A collection of writing about abortion' edited by Louise Swinn

Choice Words: A collection of writing about abortion'

edited by Louise Swinn

Allen & Unwin, $29.99 pb, 376 pp, 9781760875220

Rosie Waterland was twenty-one, couch surfing, and working at a cinema when she learned she was pregnant. A hot flush, then a wave of nausea, hit her on the toilet. ‘It was the kind of nausea that takes away any sense of dignity that a person has,’ she writes. She stripped off, lay down on the bathroom floor, and prayed for the feeling to pass.

Waterland had met a ‘skinny hipster’ at a Sydney bar. She didn’t know his surname; it was a random hook-up. She was on the pill; they’d used a condom and yet ... An abortion would cost $800 with a general anaesthetic, she was told, or $400 for a ‘twilight sedation’, which could cause ‘discomfort’ but no pain. She would need to wait four weeks for the procedure, to guarantee its success. She went to her alcoholic mother’s house and climbed into a ‘very sad and very, very grimy’ single bed. The next few weeks were spent ‘trying to sleep, waking up, puking, trying to eat, puking, trying to sleep again’.

Weak from all the vomiting, she needed help to walk into the abortion clinic. A doctor told her, ‘It sounds like you have Hyperemesis gravidarum. It can be very serious.’ When she woke in the operating theatre the pain was excruciating. ‘I hate saying that, because I don’t want to scare any woman who makes the choice to abort a pregnancy. But that was my experience … I felt like something long, thin and hard was repeatedly being shoved deep into my vagina.’ An hour or so later she was her old, hungry self, planning a trip to Cabramatta to buy ingredients for Peking duck. Does she wish it hadn’t happened? Of course. Does she wish the abortion drug RU486 had been available? Definitely. ‘But I do not regret my abortion at all. AT. ALL. I have never felt sadness, or grief, or even conflicted … I only felt relief.’

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Waterland’s bleakly funny account of this 2009 termination is one of the best contributions to Choice Words: A collection of writing about abortion. Edited by Louise Swinn, the book has an unassuming, flesh-pink cover, but it is a grenade in a lolly wrapper. Contributors include authors, journalists, activists, a doctor, an actor, and a musician. Most pieces are original, although a couple are extracts from memoirs.

Do we need this book? Sadly, yes. In New South Wales, having an abortion is still a criminal act. Around Australia, laws governing abortion vary bizarrely. In South Australia, a woman can only terminate a pregnancy if her mental or physical health or life is at risk. In Victoria, an abortion can be carried out by a registered medical practitioner with the woman’s consent up to twenty-four weeks’ gestation. In Tasmania it can be provided on these terms up to sixteen weeks’ gestation; in the Northern Territory, up to fourteen weeks. In Tasmania last year, Angela Williamson, a senior staffer at Cricket Australia, was sacked by her employer after tweeting criticism of that state government’s abortion policies. Still, we’re lucky compared to billions of women around the world. In Argentina last month, an eleven-year-old girl who fell pregnant after being raped was denied a termination and forced to give birth. In the United States, President Donald Trump is whittling away women’s reproductive rights.

Over and over, we hear powerful men pontificating about abortion. The hypocrisy can be breathtaking, most spectacularly the promiscuous Trump trying to stop women dealing with the unwanted outcome of sexual intercourse. There are a couple of male authors in Choice Words, but the authoritative rush of women’s voices here is liberating.

Williamson, for instance, writes of being a ‘confident, educated’ career woman, with a loving partner and children aged seventeen, ten, and seven, rendered invisible and ashamed by a surprise pregnancy. An ultrasound reveals she is a month further on than she had thought, almost sixteen weeks. She must fly to Melbourne for a surgical termination. She keeps up a brave face at work and forks out the money: $2,750 to the clinic; $411.50 for flights; $507.45 for accommodation. On the plane home she pays Jetstar $60 in extra baggage fees, ‘because of all the pads I’m now carrying with me’.

A suppressed fury informs many of these essays, which explore topics such as the gruesome history of backyard abortions; the long campaign for reproductive rights, and the experience of today’s medical practitioners ‘on the frontline’. There is fiction from Tony Birch, a moving comic by Sarah Firth; and poems by Van Badham and Maxine Beneba Clarke. One of the most thoughtful contributions comes from author Jane Gleeson-White. The waxing and waning of life happens daily in women’s bodies, she writes. ‘Life and death are our domain. That is why religions and states are so keen to control us and our wombs.’ To change the story, she suggests adopting a metaphor coined by the twelfth-century writer and medical practitioner Trota of Salerno, who called menses ‘flowers’. If menses are flowers, writes Gleeson-White, ‘then when we choose to abort a fertilised egg we are surely just plucking unripened fruit and returning it to the great cycle of life’.

At a time when motherhood is often tritely sentimentalised, I was energised by songwriter Laura Jean’s reflections on her decision, at thirty-five, to end a pregnancy. After googling images of the foetus at six weeks – laden with mawkish captions about ‘your baby’ – she contemplates her commitment to making music and the struggles of the artistic life. ‘How is this [childless] life less heroic than allowing my body to make a baby?’ she asks.

So many themes emerge from this book: the prohibitive cost of abortions; the plight of women in remote Australia, who may have to travel up to 1,300 kilometres to obtain one. The shame. ‘It is not nice what I do, and no-one talks about it over the dinner table,’ an anonymous, Townsville-based doctor who performs abortions tells journalist Gina Rushton. Elsewhere, we learn that only around half of Australia’s nineteen medical schools include abortion in their curriculum. And fewer than 1.5 per cent of Australian GPs are registered to provide RU486.

The quality of writing in Choice Words is uneven. Still, it is an important work, one I hope my teenage daughters will read. I wonder, too, about those men like Waterland’s skinny hipster, blissfully unaware of the price women can still pay for the pleasure of having sex. 

Suzy Freeman-Greene

Suzy Freeman-Greene

Suzy Freeman-Greene is the Arts and Culture editor of The Conversation. For many years she wrote a regular opinion column for The Age, where she was also a features and arts editor and feature writer. Her essays, critical writing and fiction have been published widely in places such as Meanjin, Island, and Good Weekend.

Published in ABR Online Exclusives

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