Curator Tilly Boleyn explains why the surgical table is a powerful representation of women’s rights. This is an extract from the publication Evidence, which can be purchased online.
This surgical table used for abortions has saved thousands of lives. Abortion is still a politically contentious issue, however, and a health service that remains heavily regulated, restricted and contested in many parts of this country and overseas.
The laws surrounding access to abortion in Australia are incredibly confusing. Abortion is still legally considered a crime in most of Australia, despite the fact that the majority of people support access to safe and legal abortion services.1 It is a surprise to many that abortion services are still not easily available to all Australian women and that for some women, especially in rural and regional areas, accessibility and affordability are serious barriers.
Abortion is the oldest form of birth control. Although it has been practised by women for thousands of years, it remains an overwhelmingly private and sometimes clandestine activity.2 Scholars have argued that this is because a discourse of shame and condemnation has been associated with abortion throughout history by religious, political and social leaders who are mostly, but not always, men.3
Like many contentious topics, laws about family planning have always been shaped by the social and political environment in which we live. Our culture and opinions in this regard have shifted and varied over the last 200 years. During this time, many women and men have worked, suffered, fought and died to help ensure women have the right to choose the size and timing of their family.4
Research has shown that women will seek abortions when necessary to regulate their fertility, even if the practice is illegal. When access to this service is restricted by law, the practice is driven underground. This makes it more dangerous for both patient and practitioner, not only in legal terms. Although abortion is, medically speaking, a relatively simple procedure, it can be fatal when desperate women have to take risks with unskilled or opportunistic abortionists. Women may develop infections, become permanently infertile or bleed to death. Under these conditions, abortion was a major cause of maternal death in Australia until the late 1960s.5 Women from rural areas in particular were over-represented in the number of abortion-related deaths in cities, presumably because they had fewer friends and networks to make recommendations or warn against unskilled practitioners, and were therefore vulnerable.6
In the late 1960s, a range of factors intersected to spark a major shift in access to abortion services in Australia, and the campaign for safe and legal abortion gradually became louder and more mainstream. In both timing and content, Australian law reform closely followed changes passed in the United Kingdom, echoing the way Australia replicated British laws that had prohibited abortion in the first place in the early 20th century. In 1969 South Australia was the first state to change its law, giving legal protection to ‘legally qualified medical practitioners’ operating to preserve ‘a woman’s life or mental or physical health’, or when the foetus had abnormalities.7 Soon afterwards in Victoria and New South Wales, widely publicised police corruption scandals revealed that police were extorting abortionists, exempting them from being raided. This contributed to courts in both states passing judgments that made allowances for similar conditions.
This was without a doubt an important historical moment in the ongoing struggle for women’s rights and abortion law reform in Australia. But the use of this terminology, ‘legally qualified medical practitioners’, along with similar formulations used in various judgments about abortion services, has cemented a medical authority over abortion services. It has been interpreted as meaning that only doctors — not nurses or midwives — can perform surgical abortion procedures.8
This establishment of a medical authority over abortion is not isolated to Australia. In the early 1970s, after reform in the United Kingdom and Australia, there was also a huge shift in US abortion law, including towards medical authority over the service. The Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v Wade found that Texas state law prohibiting abortion was unconstitutional. This landmark decision continues to be celebrated globally as a watershed moment in worldwide momentum for abortion law reform, yet has also triggered major ongoing political backlash from opponents.
Despite these national and international changes, in 2015 abortion is still considered a serious crime in a legal sense in all but three Australian states or territories. Individual states and territories protect doctors and women from prosecution only if they have satisfied certain conditions. The definitions, time frames and costs associated with these conditions vary, sometimes significantly. This has meant that practitioners and their often vulnerable patients are confronted with a patchwork of confusing and at times conflicting legislation when trying to perform or access abortion services.
This surgical table is a physical reminder of the long and ongoing struggle for abortion rights and services in Australia. It maps a similarly complex journey through health practitioners across different states, all trying to provide this health service safely to women. Its first owner was Dr Ian McGoldrick, an unconventional medical entrepreneur who offered abortion services in Victoria in the 1980s.9 In 1986, the police raided his rooms on the basis of claims by the health authorities that he was conducting ‘illegal’ abortions on underage girls. This was the first case brought against an abortion practitioner in the 18 years since reform in Victoria. McGoldrick was cleared the following year but the incident highlighted the ongoing risks doctors and their patients faced as a result of various conditions required for this service to be deemed ‘legal’.
The table was subsequently donated to a series of women-focused health services who offered abortion services — first to the Women’s Health Foundation Clinic in Tasmania, then to the Bessie Smyth Foundation, based in Sydney, and then to Marie Stopes International. In each state that the table was used, the doctors and their patients had to satisfy different conditions for the abortions to be considered ‘lawful’. These differences still persist for women living in Australia today, with their access to this health service depending largely on where they live and if they can afford the costs involved. Despite these barriers, around one in four Australian women will choose to have the procedure in their lifetime.10 In fact, it is one of the safest and most common surgical procedures in the country.
We have a lot of things to celebrate about abortion law reform in Australia, but abortion is still a long way from being a health service offered safely, legally and equally to Australian women.
- Lachlan J de Crespigny, Dominic J Wilkinson, Thomas Douglas, Mark Textor and Julian Savulescu, ‘Australian attitudes to early and late abortion’, Medical Journal of Australia, vol 193, no 1, 2010, pp 9–12.
- Stefania Siedlecky and Diana Wyndham, Populate and Perish: Australian Women’s Fight for Birth Control, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1990, p 66.
- Siedlecky and Wyndham, p 66.
- Siedlecky and Wyndham, pp 1–206.
- Siedlecky and Wyndham, p 74.
- Judith A Allen, Sex and Secrets: Crimes Involving Australian Women Since 1880, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1990, p 165.
- Quoted in Kate Gleeson, ‘Still keeping women out: a short history of Australian abortion law’, The Conversation, The Conversation Media Group, 2013, theconversation.com/still-keeping-women-out a-short-history-ofaustralian-abortion-law-11732. Accessed June 2015.
- Gleeson, 2013.
- Yvonne Pecujac, ‘Doctor in trouble’, The Age, Fairfax Media, 2004, theage.com.au/news/National/Doctor-in-trouble/2004/12/16/1102787209416.html. Accessed June 2015.
- Anthony M A Smith, Chris E Rissel, Juliet Richters, Andrew E Grulich and Richard O de Visser, ‘Sex in Australia: reproductive experiences and reproductive health among a representative sample of women’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, vol 27, no 2, 2003, pp 204–8.