By Stephanie Bastiaan
A review into the culture of AFL Hawthorn Football Club, which surfaced a couple of weeks ago, has raised serious allegations of bullying, abuse and racism from the club's hierarchy. The most harrowing accusation is that the partners of football players were pressured and coerced into terminating their pregnancies.
Today, the AFL has confirmed a panel to investigate the claims, comprised of four senior lawyers – Bernard Quinn KC, Jacqualyn Turfey, Tim Goodwin and Julie Buxton. The panel will release its report in December. This week, health and safety watchdog WorkSafe Victoria also launched its own investigation into the allegations.
It is important to note that the men at the centre of the allegations have categorically denied any wrongdoing, were not provided with an opportunity to respond before the review was published and still await their opportunity to defend themselves.
While due process must be followed in relation to all the allegations, the fact remains that three women are living with heartbreaking grief over the loss of their unborn babies. One, with abortion regret due to alleged coercion and two, from miscarriages they claim happened due to the horrendous stress they were under to procure an abortion for the sake of their partner's career.
It's not the first time abortion coercion claims have been raised in football. In 2017 two separate accusations of abortion coercion were levelled against high-profile NRL players, with one offering $50,000 to his ex-partner to incentivise her to go through with the termination. While the players moved on, the women spoke out about their heartbreaking experience of being bullied into having an abortion and losing a child they wanted.
The creation of life is extraordinary, and in most circumstances, a unique bond develops between the woman and her unborn baby. There is profound grief following the loss of an unborn child that is difficult to articulate, perhaps due to the depth of the sorrow and the stigma surrounding pregnancy loss and termination, whether it was by choice or due to external factors.
The testimony of Amy* (alias for one of the Hawthorn Footballers' partners) has shed light on abortion coercion, a form of abuse against women that is largely overlooked and under-reported.
There is no recognition of abortion coercion in Australian Law, but like other forms of abuse, it carries lifelong scars and trauma.
Abortion coercion is a deliberate abuse of power whereby the perpetrator uses threats, intimidation, violence or blackmail to force a person to undergo an abortion. While many studies have linked the correlation between abusive relationships and abortion coercion, pressure to terminate a pregnancy can also come from parents and other family members, friends, social workers or employers with a vested interest in the woman.
In Amy's case, her partner called and pressured her to have an abortion and consequently broke off the relationship. Her partner now blames the football club for interfering with his family. Their relationship did not survive the pregnancy termination that she had to protect his football career.
While proponents for abortion champion it as a 'choice', there is little support or acknowledgement in the debate for the women who feel cornered into deciding to terminate due to external emotional or financial pressures.
Not every woman regrets having an abortion. However, for many women, the decision to terminate a pregnancy is far from the liberating 'choice' proponents champion it to be, particularly when they feel like it's their only choice.
Amy now wonders what life would have been like if she had said no to having the abortion and says she lives with a decision she will always regret. She processes her feelings of grief and regret by creating pregnancy-themed artwork and textiles.
If we want to protect women like Amy, we need to stop trivialising the decision to procure an abortion and start a discussion about the impacts of coercion.
Any compulsion on women to terminate their pregnancy is wrong and abusive. Those who acquiesce under pressure to save their relationship, career or whatever the threat is, voice the same testimony of heartbreak and grief.
Women deserve better.
Medical professionals need to be trained to recognise and manage abortion coercion. While there is some government funding for pregnancy support organisations here in Victoria, this needs to be replicated nationwide so that women know their options aren't just being stuck between a rock or a hard place. No woman should feel she has to end the life of her baby because of her life circumstances.
AFL is a sport enjoyed by families all over Australia. Sportsmen are looked to as role models by the nature of their status and fame. While there are plenty of exemplary players, the endless reports of scandalous behaviour by others in the media, particularly when it comes to respecting women and personal responsibility, demonstrate the need for higher standards and accountability in football culture.
May true justice prevail through the investigations by the Hawthorn Football Club. There will be no winners, but hopefully, by having a national conversation about the issues raised, good can come from it as we work toward cultural change for the better.
Stephanie Bastiaan is a Research Fellow with Women's Forum Australia.
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