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Rethinking the abortion debate

Emilie Ng |  21 May 2018

The issue of abortion has been polarised for many years, with little engagement between ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ advocates.

Abortion Rethink is about changing the conversation by focusing on providing support for vulnerable pregnant women so that they don’t feel abortion is their only option.

In early 2015, Catherine Toomey received the life-changing news she had been waiting to hear for years – she was pregnant with her first child.

Told by doctors that she would never be able to have children, Catherine defied the odds and announced to the world on 12 March 2015, that after years of waiting, she would meet her first child in just six months.

Catherine considers her daughter, who is now two-and-a-half, to be nothing less than a miracle, but she also knows that for many women, seeing the two pink lines on a pregnancy test can be anything but good news. For the past two decades, the Brisbane-based mother who worked at the Vatican for eight years has walked alongside hundreds of women in crisis and unplanned pregnancies.

Support for women

Her interest in supporting women at difficult stages of pregnancy led her to complete a degree in media and psychology and post-graduate studies in bioethics and communications ‘to improve the cultural conversation and the response at the frontline’.

And she believes that when pregnant women faced with difficult decisions are presented with all the options – abortion, adoption, birth – they have the power to make a ‘real choice’.

‘I’ve noticed that when women receive real support, complete with all the information they request, they tend to continue their pregnancies’, Catherine says.

But the recent push in parliaments across Australia to decriminalise abortion or make it more accessible has, according to Catherine, given women the wrong perception.

‘Things have come so far now that women in our nation perceive that termination of an unexpected or challenging pregnancy is the go-to option’, she says.

‘Many women in Australia accessing termination are not doing so of their own free choice.’

Real options needed

As a woman who has experienced a pregnancy, Catherine says she understands more clearly how a mother can choose abortion if she believes it’s the only option.

She personally experienced physical and emotional setbacks during her pregnancy, as well as ‘considerable isolation’ and post-partum depression after the birth of her daughter.

‘If anything, going through pregnancy opened me to be even more understanding of the pressures and heightened mental and physical challenges women face throughout this time’, she says.

‘I’m filled with even more compassion for women who experience an unplanned or problematic pregnancy. It was hard enough when mine was planned and very much wanted.’

An opportunity to the change the way women think about unplanned pregnancies came in 2016, when Queensland politician MP Rob Pyne tabled a controversial Bill to make abortion legal up until birth.

The Bill was backed by Queensland deputy premier Jackie Trad, who has publicly defended a woman’s right to an abortion.

In response to the Bill, the Australian Family Association (AFA) commissioned a poll asking Queensland voters where they stood on abortion laws in the state.

They released their findings through a new, grassroots initiative organised by Catherine and the AFA called Abortion Rethink.

Mr Pyne’s Bill, and a second one underlining changes to gestational limits, failed to pass parliament.

Governed by Sydney-based not-for-profit organisations Women and Babies (WOMBS) International, Abortion Rethink has attracted support from health professionals, policy makers, politicians, lawyers, and women who support and care for pregnant women affected by abortion legislation in Australia.

Bridging the conversation gap

‘We saw a gap in the conversation around the two traditional sides of the debate on abortion which, by their polarising natures, weren’t able to achieve constructive conversations and outcomes’, Catherine says.

‘We sought to bridge the gap by listening and engaging with all on both sides of the debate, always with respect and evidence.’

This was true at the inaugural Abortion Rethink national summit in March, when renowned American abortion provider Dr Leah Torres spoke on a panel of obstetricians and gynaecologists, alongside Brisbane physician Dr Bryan Kenny.

Though Dr Torres’ presence was considered controversial, Catherine says Abortion Rethink is not opposed to hearing their opponents’ views.

‘For too long, those in both camps have spoken in echo chambers at themselves and abortions are still on the increase’, she says.

‘What’s most concerning is that, with abortion rates rising, we have also noticed a common statement among those in post-abortive counselling programs that they didn’t feel they had a choice.

‘If we only listen to one perspective then we cannot forge ahead to improve care for women in ways we can all agree on.

‘By collectively supporting women experiencing unexpected or challenging pregnancy, we also help their unborn children.’

Catherine says the push to decriminalise abortion in various states across Australia was nothing new.

Ten years ago she worked with healthcare professionals to set up a website focusing on better care for pregnant women. The website was a direct response to the decriminalisation of abortion in New South Wales.

Fast forward one decade, and the push to decriminalise abortion just shows that ‘culture has caught up’.

‘There is a school of thought that even though abortion is accessible on a similar level to other medical procedures in Australia, that removing protections and parameters from law will ensure that women are given the real choice and reproductive freedom that they deserve’, Catherine says.

‘Some MPs I’ve encountered over the last few years in particular are wrongly but genuinely of the opinion that by liberalising abortion, it will somehow enable more protocols to ensure her wellbeing.

‘They seem to be blinded to the fact that it means opening up an industry which will be about anything but improving care for women because this will not change the fact that many women currently feel they have no choice but abortion due to lack of support or pressure, and that evidence shows a significant number of women are harmed by abortion.

‘What women need is more support and options, not more abortions.’ Catherine is now working on rolling out a new marketing approach for organisations that do offer support and ‘real choice’ to women but are drowning from a lack of funding and resources. And to be the best mother to her miracle daughter.

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Topic tags: familylife, valuesandmoraldecision-making, catholicsocialteaching

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