Graphic design credit: Tam Tran (@mat.nart)
[Trigger warning: This article discusses abortion. Please proceed with caution if this topic causes discomfort.]
Hearing the word alone is enough to bring to mind images of raging debate, controversy, protests, arguments and even criminalisation. How we as individuals perceive abortion can be related to our personal experiences of religion, politics, media and culture, making it a difficult topic to discuss freely.
For many international students, views towards abortion can be shaped by influences from back home.
Amelia*, an Indonesian student pursuing her Master’s at the University of Melbourne, is opposed to abortion based primarily on her religious views: “As a Christian, we’re taught that abortion isn’t the right thing to do.” For Amelia, these are the values that have been instilled in her by her family and community for as long as she can remember, and they remain relevant to this day.
In Indonesia, abortion is only legal within certain medical emergency or rape cases, and is a largely taboo topic. Amelia says, “I don’t personally know anyone [from Indonesia] who’s had an abortion. I also think it won’t be accepted [back] home. I know if someone within the community was to have an abortion and others found out about it, it’d be thought of as a source of shame and that person might be shunned.”
Amelia believes that growing up with such expectations indeed shaped her own views on the topic. However, there have been times when she felt pressure to hide them. Particularly while living in Australia, she found herself in discussions about abortion both within the university classroom and with friends. “Sometimes it felt like I was the only one there with my [kind of] thoughts about abortion, so I just kept it to myself out of fear,” she explains. For Amelia, in the same way that receiving an abortion would be taboo in Indonesia, she felt that sharing an anti-abortion view was not acceptable in Australia.
Though Amelia has now returned to Indonesia due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she doesn’t believe that her views would have changed had she continued to live in Australia. Rather, she says that she would have continued keeping her views private to prevent uncomfortable discussions.
Meanwhile Ruhi*, an undergraduate student at Monash University originally from Sri Lanka, is passionately pro-choice. She has frequently shared social media posts advocating for women’s rights to safe and legal abortion options, including within her native country Sri Lanka where abortion is illegal unless a mother’s life is deemed at risk.
Although abortion rights aren’t something she can comfortably discuss with her family or even with many of her friends, she acknowledges that her community has had a large influence upon her views.
“[Abortion is] a hush-hush topic in Sri Lanka but I actually know many people who’ve had abortions,” Ruhi says. Ruhi believes that in most of these cases, the parents of the mother and father were aware and supported the abortion with the hopes that their child would be able to proceed with their lives as normally as possible. With this also came pressure to keep the procedures quiet to avoid judgement from the community, including multiple cases of hiding the pregnancy and abortion from grandparents for fear of “disappointing them”.
Ruhi also noted that, like herself, a number of her Sri Lankan friends had moved to Australia and other Western countries at an early age which also impacted their less conservative views due to the wider acceptance of abortion.
“I do think I’m quite lucky that most of my friends share the same views as me [on the topic],” Ruhi says. “It’s why I won’t think twice to share a post supporting abortion rights on Instagram. I’m sure there’s people seeing these posts who are surprised but I feel confident knowing that most people around me are open-minded.”
Whilst both Amelia and Ruhi concede to being largely influenced by those around them in terms of their perspectives on abortion and their confidence to express these, we can only imagine that a large number of international students may feel far less supported by their communities.
However, although views and attitudes towards abortion differ, it is important to listen to others even if their opinions differ from yours.
It is always worth taking the time to learn more – whether that be finding out more about views that are different to your own, or even reading up on the status of abortion within your country. Points of view, our own values and cultural norms shift and fluctuate over time – but it never hurts to keep yourself informed.
*Names have been changed.
The author of this article has chosen to remain anonymous.