Life

Those who believe the overturning of Roe v Wade in the US will not have implications in Australia are blind to the ways in which healthcare already prioritises unborn children over pregnant women. By Gemma Carey.

Roe v Wade in Australia: ‘When I was pregnant, I was not a person’

An abortion-rights activist protesting in Washington, DC, this month.
An abortion-rights activist protesting in Washington, DC, this month.
Credit: Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images

Whenever women’s rights are threatened my mind turns to something Deborah Levy once wrote: “It is so mysterious to want to suppress women … I can only think that we are so very powerful we need to be suppressed all the time.”

This suppression is so prolific, so quietly accepted, that even men I regard as well-informed on women’s health shocked me this week with their response to the overturning of Roe v Wade. One said to me, “Thank god we have equal and judgement-free healthcare in Australia.”

Dredging up the words from my gut, I rehearsed the statistics on women’s healthcare yet again. In our healthcare system, women are less likely to receive lifesaving care for a heart attack than men. Most doctors don’t know, or simply don’t take seriously, the very different symptoms of heart attacks in women. It took thousands of complaints and tremendous suffering for women to have problems associated with vaginal mesh surgery recognised and for that technique to be banned as ineffective and damaging. From the emergency department to gendering of pain management and what is and is not included in the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, women fare worse in the Australian healthcare system than men.

For some, Roe v Wade is far away enough geographically that they think it has no bearing on policy or politics here. Yet the overturning of Roe v Wade reminds us that the fight for women’s reproductive health has no end. Every country that denies women’s reproductive rights makes it easier for others to follow.

A generation ago, my mother fought for the right to choose. In my 20s, I marched for open access to the abortion drug RU486 and against the Medicare surveillance tables that Tony Abbott sought to establish so the government could have the power to determine which dilation and curettage procedures would be subsidised and which would not.

Each generation of women has been sure they secured the future reproductive rights of their daughters, only to find those rights undermined. The cascade of laws that will follow the overturning of Roe v Wade will only serve to remind us of this fact.

Rebecca Solnit writes that “to be a young woman is to face your own annihilation” in numerous ways. She argues that, because we live in a society that relishes women’s erasure, the fight isn’t “just to survive bodily, though that could be intense enough, but to survive as a person possessed of rights including the right to ... dignity”.

Like many women, I can tell you of the loss of that dignity many times over. I have had eight miscarriages, half of which required serious medical intervention – the same procedure used for most abortions. I am white, middle class, well educated – every advantage you could hope for in navigating our healthcare system. Yet each time I lost a pregnancy, I was unable to find a way to get or make the healthcare system provide me with quality care and pain relief. Each time, I struggled to find dignity.

There was the time a major hospital suggested I give birth to my second-trimester, severely disfigured baby at home. They told me to bring him back to the hospital in Tupperware for an autopsy. Another time I passed out because no pain meds were charted for me by the one doctor on duty in a rural hospital.

There was the time a nurse threw out the nine-week-old foetus I needed to have genetically tested and had, with dread, been waiting to expel for 16 hours. This agonising process had stretched on because the hospital had only half the drugs available to help my body let go of the pregnancy. Then there was the time I spent with an obstetrician, after the foetus was thrown out, sifting through a plastic container full of my miscarriage to see if there was any tissue that could be tested.

From my fifth miscarriage on I spent my time planning not for pregnancy but for how to miscarry with dignity. With each of these experiences, these miscarriages, it became clearer to me the problem wasn’t one of poor healthcare and its availability. After all, we do have a universal healthcare system that – despite resource pressures – is accessible and one of the best in the world. The problem wasn’t with a lack of care, it was with not being seen as worthy of good care.

 

When my pregnancies were proceeding as planned, I was given priority over other patients. But it wasn’t me, the adult woman with just as much heartbeat as the baby I carried, that mattered and was being prioritised; it was the cluster of cells that could become a human child.

I am a terrible pregnant person. I vomit to the point of dehydration and border on malnutrition. My hair and nails not so much break as crumble away. I get iron- and vitamin-deficient. I lose weight. I look like hell – grey-faced, weary. When I am pregnant it is as though the foetus and I are locked in a perverse battle for the meagre nutrients I can get into my body.

Yet each time I was pregnant, this sorry state was treated with the goal of keeping that cluster of cells in my uterus alive, rather than dealing with the wreck of a human who carried them. Some doctors, I have found, will allow you to vomit blood before they will up the dose of anti-nausea drugs – lest they harm the baby. When I was pregnant, I was not a person; I was a vessel. This is the logic that underpins what is now American abortion law, and it is just as prevalent in the Australian health system.

The invisibility of the women who are carrying a potential life has never been clearer than in the case of Savita Halappanavar. In 2012, Savita was denied treatment for a miscarriage that was inevitable but cruelly long. She endured days of pain from a half-expelled foetus, which could not be fully removed by Irish law because it still had a heartbeat. Savita lost her life to sepsis soon after the foetus died. Her experience was appalling enough to finally change the arcane religious laws of a whole country. Her case made Ireland finally see the brutality that can be carried out against women in the name of protecting an unborn child.

In my final pregnancy, I rang the Marie Stopes abortion clinic. The hormone tracking showed it was clearly unviable, but my fertility specialist felt it was “unethical to terminate”, and so on it went. Week after week I vomited. Stuck in bed, I contemplated how ending this tiny barely potential life could be seen as unethical while risking my life and mental health through profound illness was not. After all, the potential life could not survive without me. When no amount of pleading with my doctor worked, I called the clinic.

I was so embarrassed to be calling an abortion clinic while in the care of a fertility specialist. After I fumbled my way through explaining my predicament, the older woman on the phone told me gently, “You are far, far from the only woman in the care of a fertility clinic to call us for help.”

Sit with that fact for a moment: women who want to get pregnant, who have in fact paid a lot of money to fertility clinics to help them get pregnant, are finding themselves in charity-based abortion facilities when things go wrong. Fertility clinics are placing so much emphasis on the life of the potential child that they end up disregarding the woman who is carrying that potential child.

If you think the overruling of Roe v Wade, and all that will come after it, is shocking but has no bearing on Australia, you are wrong. If you think Australian child and maternal healthcare is of a standard that would never allow women to suffer, you have been blinded to ways in which it does. The overturning of Roe v Wade puts the rights of a potential child above those of the person carrying it, just as our health system often does, even subconsciously. Its ripples will be felt by women across the world, because, as civil rights activist Audre Lorde said, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”

Gemma Carey has a son, born through altruistic surrogacy.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 2, 2022 as "The body politics".

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Gemma Carey is a researcher at UNSW Sydney. Her memoir, No Matter Our Wreckage, was published in 2020.

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