It is perhaps unsurprising that the face of the abortion rights struggle in Australia belongs to a refugee woman currently detained in another country, 4496 kilometres away – because what have refugees in Australian internment camps and detention centres been deprived of, if not bodily autonomy?

We live in an age of paradoxes: a time when Australia tries to conceal its mistreatment of refugees through various nefarious methods – for example, criminalising the disclosure of child abuse in the Nauruan detention system ­­– even as it trumpets its concern for violence against women, which is, according to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, ‘unAustralian’.

Yet, in the case of ‘Abyan’ – the refugee on Nauru flown to Australia for a termination following a rape on the island and then deported before the procedure could even occur – violence is the direct result of Australian government policy. Despite that, the voices that usually clamour the loudest about the necessity of counselling prior to abortion are accusing Abyan of an elaborate ploy because she dared to request more information about the termination, and asked to see a doctor, a lawyer, and a translator. Counselling is, of course, a standard part of abortion procedure in Australia – and surely access to it is the fundamental right of any rape survivor.

Now the Nauruan police force – trained, developed and largely funded by Australia – says it’s considering charging another refugee woman with false rape allegations.

‘The racket that’s been going on here,’ said Peter Dutton in a statement neatly erasing Australia’s responsibility to these women, ‘is that people, at the margins, come to Australia from Nauru, the government’s then injuncted, we can’t send them back to Nauru and there are over 200 people in that category’. He went on to say that the Australian government wants ‘to provide a safe environment, a humane environment for people, but we aren’t going to be taken for mugs’.

Presumably he means that Australia can’t fund all of Nauru’s refugee women to come here for their abortions or pregnancy treatments – even though that’s precisely what’s been happening, since there’s little expert maternal health care available on Nauru. This is unsurprising for an island with a population of 10,084 (according to the last census).

Obstetrician and gynaecologist Professor Caroline de Costa, who has previously provided refugee care on the island, describes Nauru as:

a dot in the Pacific some 21 kilometres square; 80% of this has been mined for phosphate and is uninhabitable. … There is very little infrastructure on Nauru: everything must be brought at great cost from Australia to build and maintain a detention centre, feed, clothe and shelter the inmates. An unreliable water supply depends on one ageing desalination plant (run on diesel shipped from Australia) – even water may need to be transported to the island for potential detainees.

Australia has a responsibility to provide health care of a reasonable standard for refugees. In the absence of services in the ill-equipped Nauruan health system, most investigations must be done in Australia, all drugs must come from Australia, all patients requiring treatment for serious conditions must be sent to Australia. The costs, especially those for even a single medical transfer by air, are enormous.

Under Nauruan law, abortions can only be performed on the island if a woman’s physical or mental health is endangered; whether the hospital is actually equipped to perform terminations is unclear. Abortion is not allowed in cases of rape – and requires two doctors to sign off on the procedure, as well as written consent from the spouse (because only married women would require an abortion, right?). Abortions that fall outside these conditions are punishable by up to 14 years in prison – making it similar to Nauru’s possible sentences for male same-sex relations (a prison sentence which can include ‘hard labour’ – an archaic law introduced when the island was under Australian rule, and modelled on Queensland’s then laws).

In another article about Nauru, from 2014, de Costa notes that the country’s infant mortality rate is 30 per 1000 – ‘more than six times that of Australia.’ There is no blood bank on Nauru either, she points out, which is troubling ‘because [h]aemorrhage is the most common cause of pregnancy- and childbirth-related death in the world, yet if a pregnant asylum seeker on the island develops this complication the most basic facilities for her care are lacking.’

In fact, last year there was a wave of stories echoing Abyan’s – of women choosing to come to mainland Australia for abortions, because they feared their children wouldn’t survive on Nauru. ‘The weather is very hot – up to 40 degrees,’ said the husband of one couple. ‘There is a very small room … When you take meals – lunch and dinner – you must be standing two hours in the line. So we think if we (have) the child now he, the child, has no future. So we decided to take abortion.’

It is hard to imagine how Australian politicians could have failed to consider these kinds of legal and health concerns when building detention fortresses on these tiny islands. In any case, these stories reveal that Abyan’s situation is not an isolated instance. Such violence will continue to occur whether we witness it or not, since refugees and asylum seekers have no control over their own reproductive rights – or what they eat or where they live or if they work. They are perceived as the property of Australia and Nauru; deprived of agency, they are merely objects to be manipulated and denied for political purpose.

Therefore, the fight for Abyan’s abortion must be seen in a wider context – that is, bodily agency and all that entails. It is the fight for reproductive rights, which are actually human rights: the right to have children or not, the right not to be raped and assaulted, the right to move freely and decide where to live and work and grow old.

Truth be told, Peter Dutton and Malcolm Turnbull don’t believe in a woman’s right to choose, or a refugee’s right to freedom, or the right to live a life free of violence. How can they when they enact policies that see people imprisoned for years in camps rife with rape, torture and self-harm?

The detention industry has grown at a monstrous rate over the past few years – it’s currently worth $3.3 billion annually – because, thanks to Labor and LNP consensus, the counter-narrative in Australia is routinely silenced.

In the past few weeks, though, there’s been growing public outrage about the mistreatment of Australia’s refugees – the Royal Children’s Hospital, for example, announced they would not return children to detention. It’s a courageous stance. But it’s not enough.

We can’t merely demand an end to children in detention. We must demand an end to all detention. There are alternatives: as the Refugee Action Coalition shows, community processing is not only far more humane, it ‘costs just $12,000 per year, one twentieth of the cost of the offshore camps, and even less if [asylum seekers] are allowed the right to work.’

If we are for an end to violence against women, we cannot tolerate any detention of refugees, asylum seekers or migrants, because we are for bodily autonomy.


There are rallies against Australia’s War on Women in most states today. Here are the details for Brisbane, Darwin, Melbourne and Sydney.

Jacinda Woodhead

Jacinda Woodhead is a former editor of Overland and current law student.

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