I was hanging out with a dear friend and her girls, aged six, 10 and 12, when something profound happened.
We’d been to the local markets; rows and rows of stalls selling everything from pre-loved clothing and sourdough bread to fresh produce and potted plants. I’d scored myself a pair of retro canisters. Brown-orange in colour. Wooden lids.
Miss 12 was carrying the larger canister for me, and she lifted the lid and peered inside.
“Don’t inhale too deeply,” I said.
“Someone’s probably used it as an ash tray.”
She looked at me.
“You know, for butting out ciggies,” I said.
By the completely blank expression on her sweet features, I could tell that she didn’t understand a word I’d just spoken. It was a different language as far as she was concerned.
I caught her mum’s eye and we burst out laughing. It was one of those somewhat soul-nourishing moments as we realised that this pre-teen girl knew very little about an unhealthy culture that was so very prevalent when we were at school. She was vaguely aware of what cigarettes were, but it was a surprisingly difficult task to explain why you would butt one out, much less why you’d inhale its tarry vapours into your chest cavity.
Smoking is less and less a part of the younger generations’ vocabulary.
With Australia’s highly prominent Quit campaign and its unavoidable message pointing to the destructive nature of the habit, the nation’s smoking rate is falling.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, smoking rates in Australia have dropped by nearly 10 per cent over the past two decades.
“Just over one in seven (14.5 per cent) adults were smokers in 2014-15 compared with nearly one in four (23.8 per cent) in 1995,” said Louise Gates, Director of Health at the ABS.
“In particular, rates of daily smoking have decreased considerably among younger adults (18-44 year olds). In 2014-15, 16.3 per cent of 18-44 year olds smoked daily compared with 28.2 per cent in 2001. This drop is due to people quitting and people not starting to smoke. In 2014-15, 60 per cent of younger adults (18-44 years) had never smoked and 23 per cent were ex-smokers,” she said.
Yay! What utterly fabulous news. More lives are being given the value they deserve, hopefully putting a dent in the 20,000 lives claimed annually to smoking.
Meanwhile, 70-80,000 babies are aborted each year.
Immediately, a million what-ifs tumble from my mind: What if the same impetus was channelled into changing the culture around life? What if the same kind of money ($8.7 million was spent on a single anti-smoking campaign in 2016) was spent on empowering women to be great mums, no matter their circumstances? What if the Australian abortion rate was considered equally problematic, and worthy of our attention? What if people facing an unwanted or unplanned pregnancy were offered practical help in the same way that people wanting to quit smoking are offered support lines, patches, hypnosis and gum?
When I think of my friend’s daughter who is at the threshold of womanhood, I am not afraid of her picking up a cigarette. I’m not afraid that her friends will bully her into a dirty habit that will rob her good health. No. Our government has done a pretty good job at cleaning up Australia’s smoking culture.
What I’m worried about is her resolve.
Because if she was ever to find herself pregnant when the world deemed her too young, too career-focused, too unstable, too ill-prepared financially, too old, too fearful – abortion will be offered. That’s a definite. It will likely be offered before she articulates any kind of apprehension. “You’ll be wanting an abortion, then?” they will ask her. And because “everyone’s doing it” (remember that line behind the bike shed with a packet of “ciggies” and all the peer pressure?) she’ll allow the possibility to leach into her thoughts.
No one will point out the long-term physical and mental health implications. Few will offer meaningful support, the kind that attends every antenatal appointment and offers financial assistance. The dad just might say something like, “I’ll support you whatever decision you make,” but it’s a strangely empty thing to say to a woman you were intimate with, who is carrying your child.
I happen to know that this 12-year-old girl is wonderfully strong-willed. She has the kind of spunk that drives her parents crazy right now, but which is setting her up for a rock-hard resolve in her adulthood. She loves life. With that beautiful naiveté, she found it hard to conceive of why someone would inflict their own body with harm in the form of a cigarette. And my prayer is that she sees how abortion inflicts another kind of harm on women, unborn babies and families everywhere.
Maybe one day we will explain what abortion is to a younger generation, and they will be horrified at the injustice and grateful that it is not a part of their culture.