The first thing I do after stepping into Georgie Purcell’s office is gape at the mammoth-sized tribute to Marilyn Monroe that sits smack-bang above her vanity table. I don’t expect to see such a large, signed photograph of the famed Hollywood bombshell hanging in Victoria’s Parliament House. But for as long as Purcell remains in office, Marilyn will stay affixed to its walls.
“I won it at a silent auction for the Orangutan Project during the very beginning of the election campaign,” she says. “That night, I did my hair and make-up [in a style] coincidentally very ‘Marilyn’, having no idea that this photograph of her was going to be auctioned. So I took it as a sign from the universe that I had to get it.”
It’s no surprise Purcell ended up on my radar. The now 30-year-old celebrated her election into Parliament as the Animal Justice Party member of the Legislative Council for Northern Victoria in November 2022, after more than a decade of involvement in the animal protection movement.
Only six weeks after my first book Tissue was released, a non-fiction title about the decision I made in 2021 to terminate a pregnancy, I stumbled across a video Purcell had uploaded to her Instagram feed. In it, she discloses to an assembly of politicians that she once had an abortion. She recites a keen plea to the minister: to expand abortion services into rural areas around the country, drawing the room’s attention to the postcode lottery that hinders the reproductive rights of many in Australia. She is stoic and calm in her delivery. However, the comments section reveals a cesspool of judgment. Her decision to terminate her pregnancy is brought up relentlessly, the singular mention of her choice inciting one follower to write: “I was [following you] as an animal advocate. I couldn’t care less about irresponsible women.”
Only a handful of weeks after we met, I received two photographs from Purcell’s electorate office manager revealing the defacing of her campaign posters on Smith Street in Melbourne. Scribbled across the side of Purcell’s face reads: “Im [sic] for killing children but not animals. My orgasm is more important!”
There is a great irony in calling Purcell irresponsible for, at age 21, terminating the pregnancy she knew while completing her law degree would directly impede her ability to join the political ranks in the future.
“I’ve actually had two abortions, not one,” she tells me in her office. We share a look. We both know that this nugget of truth, despite it not mattering, is small enough to embolden a demographic already eager to discredit Purcell. Her foes have long laboured over her visible tattoos, her past work as a stripper and topless waiter and her thick eyelashes. In the eyes of conservatives, her life and appearance are incompatible with the dry, non-partisan world of politics. Why? Because Purcell doesn’t care to keep female sexuality, let alone hers, out of the chambers. It is, she insists, an integral ingredient for informed, progressive policy: “It’s time for me to address the stigma associated with this. For some, one’s acceptable. But two? Two’s irresponsible.”
According to Children by Choice, it is estimated that half of all pregnancies in Australia are unplanned, and half of those again are terminated. Despite abortion being a common procedure, one that between one-quarter and one-third of Australian women will undergo in their lifetime, there is no standardised national data collection on abortion. A countrywide lack of interest in crunching the numbers when it comes to how reproductive healthcare is accessed has inevitably fed into misconceptions about who the “kind” of person who terminates a pregnancy (or multiple) is. Purcell takes me back to that adjournment sitting where she announced that she had accessed an abortion close to a decade ago: “I remember thinking, no, now is not the time to mention I’ve had two.”
I wish it shocked me that a politician as firm in her beliefs as Purcell would be wrangling such a deep, complex unease about being able to publicly name her own choices. But women’s bodies have long been debated, wrangled and used as fodder in Australian politics. Six weeks ago, the Herald Sun published a cartoon featuring a depiction of Victorian Premier Jacinta Allan nude. In August, in an endeavour to voice her support for abortion to become fully decriminalised in WA, West Australian Agriculture Minister Jackie Jarvis spoke about her experience terminating a pregnancy in the early 1990s. She was met with a heartless response from Liberal MP Nick Goiran: “My aspiration is that in Western Australia a woman who finds herself in an unexpected pregnancy is surrounded by so much support that the idea of an abortion is unthinkable for her.” Jarvis had previously revealed to Goiran and the rest of the chambers that her pregnancy was the result of being date-raped in her 20s.
Without any sort of national data collection, women and pregnant people look to representation instead of statistics, real-life people they can locate elements of their own struggles within, people who have walked a similar path. Especially if that path is in and out of an abortion clinic, be it once, twice or multiple times. “Falling pregnant more than once, and deciding to have more than one abortion, happens to so many people. It’s just not spoken about. Because of this, when I fell pregnant a second time … I felt like it was my mistake,” Purcell says.
Both of Purcell’s experiences were different, again — and while her second abortion was shrouded in more stigma, it also offered her an insight into a safer healthcare experience. “The first abortion I had was before we had ‘safe access zones’, and I got quite severely harassed. I was told I was killing my baby.” Before 2015, protesters were allowed to gather on the outskirts of abortion providers and harass, condemn and bully people entering the clinic. While there are many structural roadblocks that make the process of terminating a pregnancy an uneven playing field in Australia, Victoria has remained steadily ahead of its neighbouring states when it comes to abortion access. Last week, Victoria’s Health Minister Mary-Anne Thomas announced that three additional hospitals in Melbourne’s eastern and western suburbs, as well as the Mornington Peninsula, will begin offering surgical abortions.
Purcell’s second abortion was in an entirely different setting, free from threat and intimidation, given she required the procedure just after the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Safe Access Zones) Act was introduced. “I remember thinking, this is what it feels like for politics to so intimately affect my life. And I feel safer here doing what I am completely within my rights to do.”
Purcell sits on her couch, surrounded by a handful of framed, feminist slogans. Aimee, a member of her team, peruses an exhaustive archive of rescue dogs on a nearby laptop, presumably looking to secure the team’s next adoption. There’s something to be said for a politician who neatly places her experience as a woman into her legislative mission, noting all the ways in which her gender rubs up against the world around her. Purcell is ready to say just that: a second abortion ought not be a secret. Instead it is what ignited in her the flame to campaign for safer, more comfortable abortion access. And now she’s not afraid to say so.