Monday, 5 September 2016

SPHPM research highlights the subjectivity that surrounds ‘unintended’ pregnancy in Australia

In Australia up to one third of pregnancies are unintended, and yet how we identify and conceptualise unintended pregnancy is still hotly contested. New qualitative research by Senior Research Fellow Dr Maggie Kirkman from the Jean Hailes Research Unit (JHRU) at SPHPM aims to shed light on how unintended pregnancies are constructed, explained and situated in a reproductive life. 

Her paper, exploring the subjective meanings of unintended pregnancies in Australia, was published in the journal Culture, Health & Sexuality recently as part of a wider body of work conducted by the JHRU who have partnered with Victoria’s Department of Health, Family Planning Victoria, Melbourne IVF and the Royal Women’s Hospital to investigate how people manage their fertility over a lifetime.

Dr Kirkman’s research involved interviewing 48 people in depth (41 women and seven men) about their reproductive experiences including unintended pregnancies. Their personal accounts revealed that identifying a pregnancy as unintended was a complex and subjective process. In one case the same pregnancy was identified by one partner in the pregnancy as unintended and by the other as intended.

“The explanations given for unintended pregnancies demonstrate the nuances even when a pregnancy could be identified unequivocally as unintended. This didn’t necessarily mean that it would be unwanted. It was even more complicated when it came to understanding pregnancies that seemed to be accidentally-on-purpose, or left to chance. And, of course, the woman doesn’t create meaning around her pregnancy in isolation. Societal attitudes and, in particular, a male partner’s approach to the woman and her pregnancy were clearly influential in woman’s decisions about ending the pregnancy or committing to parenthood,” said Dr Kirkman.

Dr Kirkman’s team identified a pejorative discourse among the participants, presumably reflecting a community attitude, that no pregnancy is an accident. This came predominantly from participants who did not report having an unintended pregnancy. Among those who did discuss what they often called their “accidents”, there was greater understanding that contraceptives are not fail-proof and that human beings make mistakes, especially in the heat of passion. There was also a view, however, that men need to be wary of women because some women may use ‘unintended’ pregnancy to ‘trap’ men.

“It’s important to be aware that this gender stereotype, that men are at risk of being captured by calculating women who deliberate trick them into marriage, is still current in the twenty-first century,” Dr Kirkman said.

Of the 34 participants who reported being pregnant or a partner in a pregnancy, 13 people described 23 unintended pregnancies, about half of which ended in abortion.

In the lengthy interviews, participants shared accounts of a range of fertility-related experiences including infertility, unintended pregnancy, abortion, miscarriages and childbearing. Researchers from the JHRU will use the insight and knowledge gained from this research to help inform relevant health promotion strategies.

Co-authors on the paper are Professor Jane Fisher, Dr Claire Stubber, Dr Heather Rowe, and Dr Sara Holton, all of the JHRU, with Dr Chris Bayly, Lynne Jordan, Dr John McBain, Dr Kathleen McNamee and Vikki Sinnott.

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