"The Incompetent, Barbarous Old Lady Round the Corner': The Image of the Backyard Abortionist in Pro-Abortion Politics

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`The Incompetent, Barbarous Old Lady Round the Corner': The Image of the Backyard Abortionist in Pro-abortion Politics

The image of the backyard abortionist has a powerful currency in the discourse of the contemporary pro-choice movement in Australia, and in popular representations of abortion. It is used regularly and reliably to conjure up the horrors for women of the provision of abortion services in the era before liberalisation of abortion laws in the late sixties/early seventies. Anti-abortionists are generally not interested in a history of abortion nor, for obvious reasons, in the finer points of present-day service provision. Consequently the image is not usually one that is publicly contested.

The image was used frequently in the heated community, parliamentary and media debate about abortion that took place in South Australia during the late 1980s and early 1990s. At its zenith in 1989 the political conflict around abortion focused on the state government's plans to open a pregnancy advisory centre which would, among other things, provide abortion services. The period also saw two parliamentary attempts to limit abortion services, a furore over the showing of a graphic anti-abortion film to secondary school students in a rural town and attention to the US Supreme Court Webster decision on abortion. In their defence of abortion a range of prominent and well-credentialled pro-choice and feminist commentators and activists argued, among other things, that making abortion illegal would `turn the clock back' and return to a past of backyard abortions and their attendant dangers for women. I will refer more specifically to some of these commentators below.

It is not only in the context of political debate that the image of the backyard abortionist is drawn upon. Hazel Hawke's publication of her autobiography which includes disclosure of her own illegal abortion in 1952(1) has launched a popular media interest in stories of backyard abortions. Although Hawke did not use the term `backyard(er),' and in fact describes the location of her abortion as `two city blocks from [her] office,' the coverage of the autobiography, titled `Hazel Hawke: I had an illegal abortion,' in Adelaide's Sunday Mail used a related (more British) term: `Mrs Hawke admitted she went to a back-street abortionist.' In a more recent popular media story on illegal abortion, the February 1995 issue of She magazine quotes pro-abortion activist and coordinator of the NSW Bessie Smyth Foundation, Helen Westwood. Arguing that the question is not whether abortion is right or wrong, Westwood says: `The choice is between whether a woman has access to safe, legal abortion or whether she is forced to have an illegal and possibly life-threatening backyard abortion by an unqualified practitioner.'(2) This use of the image of the backyard abortion performed by the unqualified backyard abortionist as the single sign which stands for the entire pre-law reform era is not unusual.

One of the appeals of the image of the backyard abortionist to pro-choice and feminist campaigners of the last twenty-five years or more has been its ability to place the unjust suffering of women into public discourse.(3) Outrage at the suffering of women at the hands of backyard butchers fuels the passion of many a pro-abortion activist. Indeed, some older campaigners draw on their own traumatic personal experiences and those of family and friends. But the rhetorical use of the suffering of women in this context intersects far too readily with various moves by the medical and nursing professions to discredit and replace midwives and other local women's health practitioners (who provided a significant number of all abortions in this country before law reform).

This shift involved, in particular, a move from home to hospital as the place for childbirth, and from community midwives who sometimes worked alongside doctors, to doctors and maternity nurses as appropriate birth attendants. …