My Oma was born in a little village near the town of Hadamar. Hadamar sits in the shadow of a tall hill called Mönchberg – Monk’s Mountain. On top of that hill stands an old Franciscan monastery, which was converted into a state hospital and nursing home in 1803. In 1940, however, that hospital was turned into one of the infamous Nazi ‘killing centres’. These were the six institutions spread all over Germany where first children, and later also adults, with disabilities such as (in the language of those times) ‘idiocy and mongolism (especially when associated with blindness and deafness), microcephaly, hydrocephaly, malformations of all kinds, especially of limbs, head, and spinal column, and paralysis, including spastic conditions’ were taken, systematically starved to death or gassed, and cremated.
Oma rarely spoke to us about her experiences during the war. But we know that she was affected by the experience of living in the shadow of Mönchberg. I was the fifth of sixth children. Oma loved us all very dearly, but she had a favorite, and she never made even the feeblest attempt to hide it. The other five of us were all her Silberfische – silverfishes. My older brother, Jim, was her Goldfisch – her goldfish.
Jim was born ‘mentally retarded’. When he was born back in 1952, the medical professionals counselled my parents to send him to live in an institution. My parents refused, and with much work and love, they taught Jim to do all those things that the medical professionals told my parents he would never do, like talk and walk. Jim graduated from high school. He is bilingual – fluent in German as well as English. He reads the newspaper everyday. Jim has held the same full-time position in the kitchen of a country club for twenty years now, and does not receive any sort of public assistance. Jim is known around our family as ‘the human jukebox’, for his uncanny ability to remember the lyrics to any song, from any era, by any artist.
In some sense, although we did not live in the town of Hadamar, I think that all the kids in my family grew up in the shadow of Mönchberg as well. I cannot remember a time when I did not know that the first targets of the Nazi’s gas chambers were people with disabilities. I cannot remember a time when I did not know that my brother Jim would probably not have been allowed to live if he had been born just ten years earlier, in the same hospital in Frankfurt, Germany, where I was later born – a former German military hospital in which my mother noticed, the first time she was there, swastikas carved in the borders along the top of the walls. I grew up with a visceral awareness of the potential within humanity to decide that it is legitimate to kill certain categories of people because of the costs that their life imposes on society. I grew up loving a brother who I knew was in one of the categories of humans that the Nazis had determined possessed a lebens-unwertes Leben – a ‘lifeunworthy of life’ – a life whose cost to society exceeded its worth.
But that was years ago and far away, right? I grew up, moved to the United States for college, went to law school, then plunged into my life as an all-American working mum, practicing law and raising kids in the modern, progressive metropolis of Minneapolis, Minnesota. And then something happened to me, and my life changed, and in so many ways now, on so many days, I feel as though I am still living in the shadow of Mönchberg.
What happened was this. When I was about five months pregnant with my third child, Peter, I got a copy of this (pictured).
This is the karyotype of one of Petey’s cells that was floating in amniotic fluid extracted from my womb by a big needle during an amniocentesis. The arrow in the karyotype points out that Petey’s cells have three, rather than the usual two, copies of chromosome number 21. This indicates that he has an incurable chromosomal condition called trisomy 21, or Down syndrome, or, in the old-fashioned language of the Nazi regime, ‘mongolism’.
The medical professionals I was dealing with during a series of tests were not trying to find information to help me protect the health of my baby. Unlike the tests for anemia or HIV, there is little that can be done about the conditions that these tests were attempting to identify. These tests were offered for the purpose of bestowing upon me a special societal privilege to choose to abort my baby. That karyotype could have been my ticket to a guilt-free, utterly justified, absolutely legal abortion. If the technology had existed in the 1940s, that karyotype would almost certainly have been a ticket to Hadamar.
As someone who has always been pro-life, I did not accept these tests for the purpose of obtaining that ‘privilege’. I just wanted to know, partly in the vain hope that I could be reassured nothing was wrong, but also so that if I could not be reassured, I could at least be prepared. I am a nerd; if I was going to have a baby with Down syndrome, I wanted to read every possible book on the subject before the baby came.
Experiencing this testing sequence first hand, however, gave me some personal insights into the potentially pernicious effects of the prenatal testing process. The tests are all offered in the guise of ‘reassurance’, along with a battery of other tests. All of these tests carry with them the implication that the responsible mother can and should do something constructive with the results: take extra iron if she is found to be anemic; take AZT if she has HIV; or abort the baby if he or she has Down syndrome. If you lack the financial or other resources to raise a child with a disability, you could easily be swayed by an argument that the knowledge you now possess about the child gives you the responsibility to do something constructive to solve the problem, by aborting the child.
Now, this argument could obviously be a powerful incentive for a person to ‘choose’ to have an abortion. Going through this process personally made me acutely aware of its potential power. But this was not the aspect of the experience that really surprised me. What really surprised me was that people did not stop making this argument once I rejected it during the testing phase. When I started telling people that the baby I was expecting would have Down syndrome, I had colleagues ask me incredulously, ‘Why are you having this baby?’ While there was something rather creepy about being asked that question directly – by someone staring at that big belly of mine, while the baby kicked inside – it was still not too difficult for me to deal with. I was comfortable defending my position that I didn’t believe in abortion, that I didn’t think I did have any choice in this matter; I was still in familiar, pro-life territory.
But I left that familiar territory the moment that Petey was born, and I found, to my great surprise, that society still kept asking that question: Why did you have this baby? I have had people react with marked surprise when they hear that I knew Petey would have Down syndrome before he was born. Though they do not ask aloud, you can see the question in their eyes: ‘If you knew, why did you have the baby?’ What’s buried in that question, what’s buried deep in their eyes as they ask it, is the perception of my son as ‘a choice’ – specifically, my choice – rather than as a unique human being, rather than as a fully-fledged member of the human race.
What I see in their eyes is the lingering shadow of Mönchberg that sometimes keeps me awake at night. I worry that the joint availability of tests and abortion seems to be eroding societal consensus about our collective responsibility for vulnerable people – people with disabilities whose conditions were or could have been diagnosed prenatally, or even people born into difficult family situations or social structures. I am very frightened by the emerging attitude that if a woman exercises her ‘choice’ to have a child who can be identified in advance as ‘vulnerable’ for some reason, the woman herself bears the responsibility for dealing with that vulnerability. In other words, if the ‘cost’ of a certain life is going to be more than its ‘worth’, someone has to make up the deficit. The assumption seems to be that if you ‘choose’ to impose that cost on society by having a baby you could so easily have aborted, you should pay the price.
Rosie became pregnant at 17 last year. She was labelled a slut. Melissa, 14, ran away from home so her parents couldn’t force her to have an abortion.
Jackie, 33, had a violent partner who didn’t want their baby. There was no public housing available and refuges were full. She slept in her car.
Kat, 32, was threatened by her boyfriend. She says: ”I decided when I saw my little boy kicking on the screen I was going to keep him. I knew this would make me a single parent – I had been told in no uncertain terms I was on my own unless I ‘toed the line’.”
These are just some of the stories of women I am aware of who decided to have a child in difficult circumstances – even though it meant bearing the label ”single mother”, with all its alienation and stigma.
They wanted their babies. They were determined to be the best mothers they could be. All did it tough. But their love for their child pulled them through. It’s the kind of love you need when you’re being marginalised, told you are a bludger and a leech. Even that you are to blame for the ills of the world.
Senator Cory Bernardi in his book The Conservative Revolution suggests there are higher levels of criminality among boys and promiscuity among girls ”who are brought up in single-parent families, more often than not headed by a single mother”. Read more here
’I just wish that people had more of an open dialogue about what pregnancy really means to you as a woman’
Dear Senator Bernardi,
There has been a lot of talk in the media about your recent comments about abortions. I thought I would share my story with you.
Being in a toxic relationship and discovering you are pregnant is one of the most intense pressure cooker situations a woman can be in. My pregnancy was unplanned – I was taking the pill YAZ and it failed. I am university educated, 32 years old, middle income earner, lived in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, my parents are still married and I have a harmonious family life.
When the two pink lines appeared I was told in no uncertain terms I would be having an abortion- and I was to understand my partner was only looking after himself and I’d “better not try to screw him over”, I was then kicked out of the house in the rain and had to walk home.
He then disappeared into nights of drinking with his best friend under the banner that his best friend needed “support” while his pregnant girlfriend sat on the couch at her house freaking out- oh of course I got the 11pm “ How are you? You will be getting an abortion its nothing, it’s just a process stop looking for attention” message. Great father material wouldn’t you say?
It was a terrifying future would my measly salary cover the cost of a child? Would I be able to maintain my apartment? I’ve never been inside a centrelink office in my life I wouldn’t have a clue where to begin. Would I be able to cope with the stigma narrow minded people – such as you- place on single mothers? It was clear this would be my only option. Would I be able to form another relationship? How would I go about getting external help?
And was it indeed my fault? My ex certainly seemed to think so. Did I make this happen? Should I have done something differently?
If I had an abortion how would I cope? Was I going to be ok? It was more than obvious my sham of a hetero sexual relationship was completely loveless – was it right to bring a child into the world with no father? It may well be my right to choose – how was I to make this life defining choice? Could I cope with the very real very scary physical and psychological side effects of a termination? All the literature told me it was no big deal- but it felt like a big deal and the consequences were enormous.
All this and my hormones were out of control.
You know who supported me? My gay best friend. He was on call with listening to me agonize over what to do, running through all the options offering total unconditional love- as were my parents.
I had my scan – my “partner” refused to attend, my mother held my hand -I decided to keep my son. I take no moral high ground here I made the choice that I felt was right for me.
The terror remained and it was only going to get worse. I lost my son in extremely traumatic circumstances.
Oh the guy? Ran away but not before he abused me one last time advising I was disgusting and deserved what happened to me. But nothing is more sacred than the love between a man and a woman right?
Here’s the true tragedy- my story is not uncommon.
Your remarks show you can’t possibly comprehend what a woman is thinking when there is an ambiguous pregnancy, nor does it offer empathy to my hetero sexual abusive relationship situation.
When I was a little girl I didn’t say “when I grow up I want to have an unplanned child to an abusive manipulative man and terminate it because I feel trapped by the stigma of society, the belief and social assurances that I can’t do it on my own.”
To trivialise abortion as used for “birth control” undermines the difficulty of the decision. I have spent a lot of time with women who have had abortions all, not one or two but all, found it to be an agonizing decision. Your statement shows you haven’t researched correctly and lacks empathy.
I wouldn’t change decision to keep my baby, it was the right one for me. Do I wish things had been different? Absolutely – the loss of my son has been the hardest, most cruel and shocking experience of my life. I actually didn’t know pain like this existed. Even now the shock of it all still affects me, especially coming up to one year since he grew his angel wings.
I just wish that people had more of an open dialogue about what pregnancy really means to you as a woman- and extended empathy rather than sitting in judgement.
Pro life, Pro choice, I’m actually Pro woman.
‘ When I was pregnant at 15 I needed support’
[This to Victorian MP Bernie Finn following a vitriolic debate on one of my Facebook pages which I have been forced to shut down]
Dear Mr Finn,
I am a pro life woman. I believe mothers and babies should be embraced and supported by our community. I believe laws should protect life before and after birth. Please enact the following:
Illegal to pressure girlfriend or wife to have an abortion.
Illegal to harass pregnant mother to the point of physical and mental health breakdown, with stronger penalties applied. (FYI, Maternal stress is linked with future health problems in the unborn child as well as the mother).
Stronger restraining order laws. I was afraid to apply for child support and wrote “father unknown” on the birth certificate to avoid being compelled to do this.
Illegal for mentally ill, depraved and criminal father to come back into child’s life 12 years later, using Legal Aid and the family court (successfully) to harass and intimidate mother, to undermine child’s education, to harass and threaten teachers, to cause depression/anxiety/trauma for mother, to escalate and encourage child to rebel against mother and society, cause mental health issues in child, resulting in psychiatrist paid for by mother. All of this allowed by the court with no penalties.
Illegal to lie to the child support agency about paternity.
Illegal for father to pose as a teenage girl to stalk child on facebook and actively encourage him to defy his mother with this fake female personality.
Illegal for father to then claim child support off mother after successfully encouraging child to run away from home and live with him, even though she was afraid to claim child support for 12 years.
Illegal for father to give child weapons.
Illegal for father to give child drugs, alcohol and pornography.
I could go on and on sadly. The legal correspondence goes on for miles. I became used to my lawyer advising me that the court would do nothing about his behaviour, despite his violent criminal history, prison sentence, numerous stays in mental institutions and his then current mental health forensic order. I visited the police station almost weekly with new information and became used to them literally shrugging their shoulders at me.
I don’t share my story often because I’m afraid it will make girls afraid to have their babies. Who would want to be forever tied to an abuser in this way? When I was 15 and pregnant, the legality of abortion didn’t enter my mind, I had never thought about it. But I did need the law to protect me and my child from the child’s father. Existing laws were and still are, woefully inadequate.
When I was 15 and pregnant, what I needed was genuine support, someone to walk alongside me, a true friend, a mentor. We need to funnel more resources into organisations who provide this support in order to help more women and girls.
I see that women’s stories of unexpected pregnancy have changed very little in the almost two decades since I had a baby. Please change the laws so that no woman or girl – or their child – has to endure what I have endured.
Recent publicity for abortion drug RU486 has given women assurances of its safety. The drug is promoted as do-it-yourself, easy, private and ”more natural”. In this pro-RU486 spin, the voices of women harmed by the chemical cocktail have been drowned out.
”Rose”, 27, from South Australia, shares her experience in the new preface of RU-486: Misconceptions, Myths and Morals by Renate Klein, Janice Raymond and Lynette Dumble. She was told it would be easy and quick. ”The worst part … was the sheer amount of time it took for me to ‘terminate’ my baby: every large clot of blood – which I could literally feel passing through my insides … was a reminder of the fact I was terminating a baby, for which I felt hugely saddened.
”It was three days of nausea, high temperature, sweating, cramping, lots of blood, distress and swirling emotions. I would never ever go through that again.” Rose bled for another three weeks.
An unnamed 25-year-old American woman described her experience after taking RU486 at six weeks. ”I was in excruciating physical pain for at least 12 hours straight and I was bleeding through my pants, but I was in so much pain I couldn’t even clean myself,” she says. ”I vomited continuously … I couldn’t speak, eat, drink, sit up, and had difficulty breathing … I thought I was going to die …
”I was told I would have emotional instability for a few weeks because of the hormonal chemical imbalance that the drug causes. I have experienced severe emotional fluctuation ever since … I would never have taken this had I been properly informed.”
Norine Dworkin-McDaniel’s story ”I was betrayed by a pill” was published in Marie Claire in 2007. ”Nothing prepared me for the searing, gripping, squeezing pain that ripped through my belly … For 90 minutes I was disoriented, nauseated, and, between crushing waves of contractions … racing from the bed to the bathroom with diarrhoea,” she wrote.
”The next night, I started bleeding. I bled for 14 days. A follow-up ultrasound confirmed I’d aborted.” She developed ”huge cystic boils that soon covered my neck, shoulders, and back” and suffered ”an utter lack of ability to do anything more strenuous than sleep or lie on the couch”.
Since the death of his 18-year-old daughter Holly in 2003 from an infection after an RU486 abortion, Monty Patterson has lobbied the US Congress to pass ”Holly’s Law”, calling for the suspension and review of the drug.
In Australia, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee has agreed to a request from Marie Stopes Health, a subsidiary of Marie Stopes International, to list Mifepristone Linepharma (RU486) and the misoprostol GyMiso on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme for termination up to 49 days gestation. From August 1, both drugs are available on the PBS.
Marie Stopes’ record in following up women who have been prescribed the abortion drug is questionable. On March 19, 2012, it was reported that a woman had died sometime in 2010 at a Marie Stopes clinic. In a study by Marie Stopes’ staffers published in the Medical Journal of Australia (September 2012), this death was callously attributed to the woman’s own negligence because she didn’t ”seek medical advice” and died of sepsis.
Where was the follow-up by Marie Stopes? There was no coronial inquiry.
In May 2012, the Therapeutic Goods Administration told a Senate committee it didn’t collect information on RU486-related deaths of women overseas. Perhaps it doesn’t think it important enough? As at April 30, 2011, the US Food and Drug Administration had held detailed reports on 14 US deaths and five deaths elsewhere, with two further deaths reported since then.
Noting that only one in 10 adverse events is reported, the FDA has recorded 2207 adverse events, including 612 hospitalisations, 58 ectopic pregnancies, 339 women who experienced blood loss requiring transfusions and 256 infections, 48 of which were ”severe”.
Here, the TGA has been informed of 132 cases of ongoing pregnancy requiring surgical abortion, 23 cases of haemorrhage requiring blood transfusion and 599 cases of incomplete abortion requiring surgery. This means about 1 in 30 women will need a second termination procedure. Other negative outcomes include cervical tearing and uterine perforation.
A South Australian study found women undergoing ”medical” abortion had more symptoms, reported higher pain scores and had higher rates of emergency admissions. After discharge they had more nausea and diarrhoea. According to an earlier British study, women who saw the foetus were most susceptible to psychological distress, including nightmares, flashbacks, and unwanted thoughts related to the procedure.
While Health Minister Tanya Plibersek says that the drug will be an advantage for women in remote and under-resourced areas, the lack of nearby emergency facilities is a reason not to use it, medical bodies say. Regardless of one’s views on abortion, pushing this drug combo as simple is disrespectful of a woman’s right to know what she might face.
WHEN Melbourne sonographer Jane (not her real name) told the young Afghani Muslim bride that she was expecting a girl, she felt she had just handed out a death sentence.
“It was the worse scan in my 15 years in the profession,” she told me.
“My patient came in recently for a routine 20-week obstetric foetal wellbeing scan. She asked the gender of the baby. In the room were family members.
“I said the baby looked healthy and most likely a girl. The grandmother spoke aggressively in another language and left the room slamming the door, followed by the uncle and a little boy.
“The mother was crying hysterically. You would have thought I had just told her that her baby had died.
“I thought the little boy was theirs and that they would be happy for a girl. But the father, who was older, told me his firstborn was also a girl – the boy was his nephew.
“I have no doubt about the intentions of the father. The mother may have wanted to keep that child but there was little doubt in my mind she would be aborted.”
Jane went home and cried. She spent days agonising, even wondering if she should leave her profession.
As a result of gender requests, which she believes can lead to abortion, she is increasingly reluctant to reveal a child’s sex. Many colleagues feel the same, not wanting to be complicit.
“Things have changed,” she says. “This used to be a joyful job, showing pretty pictures to couples happy with the baby. Now there is more insistence on revealing the sex early and you fear what they will do with the information.”
She knows many cases where the initial predictions have been found wrong with later screening.
“It’s not a diagnosis, more a prediction. There are conditions that can mask the sex, such as un-descended testes. I’m sure babies are being terminated based on wrong information.”
Jane’s account follows a Sunday Herald Sun report that a baby girl was aborted in Melbourne at 19 weeks because her parents wanted a son. Melbourne doctor Mark Hobart refused to refer them for a termination. It has since emerged that Dr Hobart is pro-life. This does not change the nature of the request. Many doctors who have no issue with abortion would baulk.
“The parents were upfront and told me that was the reason for the abortion,” Dr Hobart said. “I just couldn’t believe it. It was the husband who did all the talking – he was so insistent.”
A spokesman for Federal Health Minister, Tania Plibersek, reduced this act of discrimination to a “clinical matter”. Australia is a signatory to the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, agreeing to do all it can to achieve its objectives, including those on gender equality, equity and empowerment of women.
For example, governments are urged to take the necessary measures to prevent infanticide, ante-natal sex selection and trafficking in girl children. What’s the point of signing if a baby girl can be eliminated because her parents wanted a son?
Ms Plibersek would, I’m sure, oppose female foeticide and infanticide, which results in about 200 million fewer girls in the world a year according to the UN.
In her recent book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, Mara Hvistendahl writes: “They were selected out of existence.”
It appears easier to condemn sex bias practices when they happen far away, but not at home.
The Medical Board said it would not pursue the case because terminations are allowed up to 24 weeks. Including for being female.
The governing body of our medical profession has simply wiped its hands of a harmful discriminatory practice condemned around the world. And if the mother was under pressure not to give birth to a girl, she also is a victim.
While no one knows the extent of the practice in Australia – surely one case is too many – and while not all cases will be driven culturally or apply only to girls, perhaps Jane’s story will help others in the field come forward with their experiences.
Rather than provide and underwrite sex-selective abortion, we should be signalling strong opposition to ante-natal sex selection as part of our broader goals to eliminate gender inequality and bias.
The Medical Board should investigate. Eliminating babies of the “wrong” sex is not about health, therapy or healing. It is about reinforcing prejudice. And it can never be seen as just a clinical matter.
DO yourself a favour. Stop what you are doing, log on to YouTube and watch a short film called Be My Brother.
Starring Gerard O’Dwyer and created by 20-year-old Genevieve Clay, Be My Brother took out the award for best film at the 2009 Tropfest. Gerard was named best actor.
Gerard is a young man with Down syndrome who takes prejudice by the throat through humour and charm.
He disarms people. The last few seconds of the film are a celebration of unadulterated affection and acceptance.
Now meet Melissa Riggio.
In a National Geographic piece entitled ”I have Down syndrome: Know me before you judge me,” Melissa wrote: “When my mum first told me I had Down syndrome, I worried that people might think I wasn’t as smart as they were, or that I talked or looked different”.
”But having Down syndrome is what makes me ‘me’. And I’m proud of who I am.”
But Melissa knows about prejudice.
She says: “I still have to remind myself all the time that it really is OK to just be myself.
“Sometimes all I see – all I think other people see – is the outside of me, not the inside.
”And I really want people to go in there and see what I’m all about.”
Melissa challenges us: “I can’t change that I have Down syndrome, but one thing I would change is how people think of me.
”I’d tell them: Judge me as a whole person, not just the person you see.
“Treat me with respect, and accept me for who I am. Most important, just be my friend.”
But there are some who think Gerard and Melissa shouldn’t be here at all.
In the British Journal of Medical Ethics recently, Melbourne academics Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva argued for “after-birth abortion”, a euphemism for the killing of newborns.
The killing of infants is legitimate, they wrote, “if a disease has not been detected during the pregnancy, if something went wrong during the delivery, or if economical, social or psychological circumstances change such that taking care of the offspring becomes an unbearable burden”.
Babies with disabilities are obvious first targets of such arguments.
In my book Defiant Birth: Women who Resist Medical Eugenics (Spinifex Press, 2009), I argued we live in a society intolerant of those judged imperfect.
The contributors spoke of how they faced disapproval for having babies with disabilities. But they refused to go along with social prejudice.
The academics’ views, in a prestigious journal providing ethical education to the medical profession, make it harder for those women and for their children.
They fuel the idea that it is a woman’s duty not to “burden” society with their child.
It’s already hard for families with disabled children to find proper help and care in a society backing away from collective responsibility for those who are vulnerable, questioning sharing the costs of healthcare services with those with special needs.
Many more children become disabled at or after birth than those who had a disability before birth. Will utilitarian academics argue they should be done away with as well?
Jay Jeffries is a Melbourne mother of two boys, including Tuscan, aged almost 4.
She told me that when she saw Down syndrome especially cited as a reason for infanticide, “suddenly I felt a very deep sickening feeling. I wanted to vomit. That’s my boy you’re talking about, that’s my toddler you’d be killing off”.
“When my son was born they placed him on my chest, his eyes were wide open.
”He made a little cry and I kissed him over and over and played with his fingers. My husband wept tears of joy,” Jeffries said.
“We knew from 15 weeks that he had Down syndrome. We knew he had a heart condition and would need surgery in the first three months of life, yet still we wept tears of joy.
”He had survived. He was our little fighter!
“We didn’t see his disability, we just saw the red mop of hair, the little fingers and his innocent eyes.
“When I think that someone in that moment might have suggested killing him, I feel rage! I wanted to protect him from all the bad things in this world. These are a mother’s natural instincts.
”What would become of a society that squished these desires, and moved straight to a cold analytical assessment of the child?”
I wonder if the real disability is not with the child but instead with society’s inability to see its intolerance of imperfection.
Julia Anderson, wife of former deputy prime minister John Anderson, wrote in Defiant Birth of what she learned from their son Andrew, who had Down syndrome and died at six months: “To see that we are all imperfect, just in different ways.”
I’d rather a world with Gerard and Melissa and Andrew and Tuscan in it than a world of powerful people who deny their right to be here.
As published in the Sunday Herald Sun, April 22, 2012
Since the publication of Rachael Hills’s article “Who’s Afraid of Melinda Tankard Reist” (and see her reflections two weeks later) at least ten on-line and print media articles have joined in a public dissection and commentary along the lines of, “she’s a conservative religious fundamentalist” and “she’s pro-life and can’t be a feminist.”
The subliminal context of the attempts to bring Melinda Tankard Reist to her knees and destroy her work is of course the elephant in the room: if her considerable impact on educating the public about the harms of the sex industry could be reduced, the pornography and prostitution promoters and profiteers would rejoice.
As her publishers at Spinifex Press, Australia’s only feminist publishing house (and secular), we take issue with these portrayals of Melinda Tankard Reist. It is easy to try to dismiss someone by smacking on a “fundamentalist” (whether Christian or Muslim, Hindu or Jewish) label and thereby dismiss the arguments that a person makes. What is less easy, but more ethical and intellectually rigorous, is to examine Tankard Reist’s views – which are shared by many feminists and other advocates for social justice and human rights – and to see what the factual arguments for those views are. Read more>
I’m really not all that interested in Royal Weddings. I’m actually not all that interested in royal things in general (I do like the horses though. And I confess I can remember where I was when Lady Di got killed in the car crash).
But finding out who and who isn’t on the guest list for the April 29 marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton has got me interested.
For example, the President of the United States of America, Barak Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama are not among the 1,900 invitees. But it appears rapper Kanye West is. Yes, the same Kanye West holding a woman’s decapitated head. The same Kanye West who sings lines like “She just wants a swallowship” has apparently received an invitation from the Palace seeking the pleasure of his company.
As readers of this blog know, I have been involved in a global protest against Kanye West’s Monster video. You can read about it here and the petition is here (approaching 15,000 signatures).
But last night I saw a Kanye West tweet which promoted me to take matters a bit higher and ask the Queen (through @britishmonarchy – who’d have thought the monarchy was into twitter, but there you go. Thanks @fittoprint) whether Kanye West was the kind of guest you wanted at the celebration of your grandson’s nuptials. I thought she needed to see this:
Now there’s a ‘post modern critique of female sexuality’. Perhaps, as is my habit, I’m missing all the irony and satire.
Fortunately British pop star Lily Allen understood full well what West meant. She tweeted:
I’m hoping it will put Her Majesty the Queen in a bad mood too, and she’ll take another look at that invite list.
Recently, Xinran, the Chinese-English journalist and author of Messages from an Unknown Chinese Mother: the lives of women in contemporary China, visited Australia to talk about her new book. It is a collection of real life stories told by Chinese women forced to abandon their babies for social, political and historical reasons. You can hear an affecting interview with her here on ABC’s The World Today in a piece titled ‘Hidden Brutality of China’s one-child policy’.
Xinran’s documenting and speaking about the true life suffering of uncountable numbers of Chinese women brought to mind the real life sufferings of two Chinese women whose experiences were seared into my mind in the 1990s. I don’t want what happened to them to be forgotten or overlooked.
In 1995 a lawyer friend introduced a Chinese woman to me. She had failed in her original attempt to get asylum in Australia and was appealing. My friend, who worked for the Refugee Advice and Casework Service in Melbourne, was trying to stop her deportation.
I called her ‘Dr Wong’ in the pieces I went on to write about her, including in The Age (‘China’s children of the damned’, March 31, 1995) and here.
Dr Wong was a Chinese gynaecologist forced to carry out abortions almost up to birth, against her will, at a hospital in Jiangsu province.
She told me about how heavily pregnant women were brought to her kicking and screaming. They were tied by their hands and feet to the table for the abortion. Dr Wong estimated she performed at least 10,000 abortions in her seven years at the hospital. She was forced to kill almost full-term babies in the womb by lethal injection and put babies who survived abortion into rubbish bins to die. She showed me photos. I still have them. They are unbearable to look at. Fully formed babies in kidney dishes, covered with blood.
Dr Wong won her appeal on religious freedom grounds. A Christian, my friend successfully argued that being forced to perform abortions was a violation of her religious freedom. She was granted asylum.
On February 6, 1995, Dr Wong testified before a Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee (fearing reprisal, she would not use her real name and the hearing was closed). Part of her testimony appears here:
In the hospital, you can see the women suffer and have pain for this one-child policy. It is only for this one-child policy that they came to the hospital; like they are coming to jail. They kill her baby, and they make her suffer. They make your heart break. This happens every day in China – every day. You can see the bodies of the babies – like a mountain of rubbish. Every day you see babies who want to try to get breath and who want to live. They did not die at first. They want to live. You saw miles of blood go out, and the mother crying. Every day mothers saw dead babies. The mothers catch the bare babies and cry.
We stayed in touch for a few years. While settled in Melbourne, she was not at peace. She was tormented by what she had done and hated herself. Despite her faith, she could not find forgiveness. She said to me:
Every year at Christmas time we have a show for the birth of Jesus. When I saw the baby (who was playing the part of) Jesus, I think: “I kill this baby”…I don’t think I’m really Christian. I think I’m opposite to a Christian because I do so many bad things. I didn’t try and do something for Chinese women. I’m not a very brave woman, I’m weak. In my heart I know Christian always brave, the Christian dies for God, for human rights, for life, for the right things. These things I cannot do, so I am not a Christian. I am evil. I think if I say I am a Christian, no one believe me.
The last time I saw her she was contemplating plastic surgery to change her face. She could not look at herself in the mirror.
Only four years after this, Australia witnessed the shocking case of Zhu Quing Ping, deported from Australia after begging to be allowed to stay to deliver her “unauthorised” baby, due in 10 days.
“We have no obligation”, said then Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock about Zhu Quing Ping, on 60 Minutes, June 6, 1999 (though it was the then acting Immigration Minister, Amanda Vanstone, now Australia’s ambassador to Italy, who authorised the deportation).
Zhu Quing Ping had arrived by boat in 1994 and sought asylum. During three years detention at the Port Hedland detention centre in WA, she gave birth to a daughter. Requests to be allowed to marry the child’s father were refused. Ms Zhu conceived a second baby in November 1996. All avenues of appeal were exhausted. The pregnancy was dismissed by a departmental official as irrelevant in a claim for refugee status. The department took advice that the risk of abortion was “low”.
Ms Zhu pleaded not to be returned, at least not until her baby was safely delivered: her only request was to go home with a live baby. “The manager said I couldn’t. He said you must go back to China, all the procedures have been arranged. [He said] You won’t be persecuted when you return to China,” she said in a video interview.
The manager was wrong. Ms Zhu’s baby was returned to a State-sanctioned death sentence.
Seven days after deportation she was subjected to an injection through her abdomen to destroy the baby’s nervous system. Labour was induced, and the baby delivered. Some reports said the baby had been born alive and was strangled.
A video interview, the written order by family planning authorities to security officers to apprehend the woman on arrival, a medical certificate (“On July 21, 1997 the second pregnancy eight months plus has been induced to be terminated in our hospital”) and the bill for the abortion were smuggled out of China and exposed at a Senate committee hearing by (then) Senator Brian Harradine. I have this material.
A 60 Minutes team tracked Ms Zhu down and compiled a harrowing piece about her experience (aired June 6, 1999). She wept inconsolably as she spoke of the death of her almost-born son.
They forced me into a car and took me to the hospital. I told the doctors I am already more than eight months pregnant. I was begging them to wait for my husband to come and help me but they said no and they gave me the injection anyway and I went into labour. After the baby was born I couldn’t get out of bed. I asked the nurse what sex the baby was and she said he was a boy. A baby boy. The boy weighed three and a half kilos. When I heard this I just burst out crying and I cried so hard I actually passed out.
Concerned for her wellbeing, the journalists took her to the Australian consulate in Guangzhou, seeking protection for her and her three-year- old daughter Joycie. Efforts by refugee advocates and Senator Brian Harradine to secure Ms Zhu a visa by which she could leave China and by which Australia could make amends, failed. Attempts to bring her here to give evidence to two inquiries failed. So fearful was she of being forced to leave the consulate’s protection, she tried to harm herself, according to Australian Susan Murphy, who cared for her for almost two weeks.
It emerged that other pregnant Chinese women had been deported as well and were mostly likely aborted on arrival.
China perpetuates violence against women through the most barbaric fertility control plan in the world. Its policy has resulted in forced sterilisation, forced abortion, forced fitting of IUDs, female foeticide and infanticide and prenatal sex selection. A Chinese woman’s right to bodily integrity and her freedom of conscience are forfeited daily.
The Nuremberg Trials defined forcing a pregnant woman to submit to the killing of her unborn child as a crime against humanity.
With a big scarlet letter on the back as a sign of their shame
In the US, teen fashion chain ‘Forever 21′ has launched what has been labelled a “controversial” maternity line called Love 21 Maternity. The range can be found in Forever 21 stores in five states. Apparently, three of these states have the highest teen pregnancy rates in the U.S. Some are claiming that Forever 21 is deliberately endorsing or encouraging teen pregnancy. They’ve made quite a thing about it. See this and this and this.
It’s obvious really, isn’t it. The impressionable young woman sees a baggy dress or elasticised pants and says to herself: “I think I’ll get pregnant so I can get some of those!”. And let’s not even mention those cool maternity bras with the little hooks allowing release of the flaps for easy breast feeding.
I love this quote: “The maternity line has some cute, fresh and very young clothes, which only proves that they were targeting young soon-to-be moms”.
Only proves it? Oh that’s right, I almost forgot. Mums who are not in their teens are expected to look dowdy, unfresh and old.
I wonder what the critics prefer? That a pregnant teen not have something half decent to wear? Like she doesn’t already have enough problems to contend with. Is it better we send her off to the sackcloth and ashes shop where she can find something really ugly and punishing to wear, a point I make here:
I’m not making light of teen pregnancy. Yes it is a serious issue. It’s also has complex causes. Reducing this to a debate about whether a few items of clothing in a few stores in a few states in America encourage it, is trivialising the importance of the issue.
Not every young woman wants an abortion. They are overrepresented in research findings on negative mental health outcomes after abortion. Some shared their distress in my book Giving Sorrow Words: women’s stories of grief after abortion. But if a young woman has decided to go ahead with her pregnancy, surely she should be given every support. Including some clothes to wear that won’t make her feel worse.
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