I wrote yesterday about Right to Life’s latest attack on abortion access in New Zealand, so it’s timely to talk about the issue.
Abortion is one of the great untouchable topics in New Zealand politics. In the 80s we could fully decriminalise homosexuality, but we couldn’t decriminalise abortion. In the 2000s we could decriminalise sex work, but we couldn’t decriminalise abortion. We have absolute marriage equality now … and abortion is still the issue that people, especially on the left, freak out about every time.
If this were any other issue, if the lives at stake were any other than those of people seeking abortions, action to provide this health service locally and more safely would be swift. But this is abortion. So even though this is about a procedure roughly one in four New Zealand women will undergo in their lifetimes, and even though abortion is something that is absolutely crucial to the autonomy and freedom of at least half of the population, politicians will continue to say everything is fine, judges will continue to make the law and doctors will continue to have control over our bodies, and our lives.
Alison’s book on the history of the abortion rights struggle in New Zealand, Fighting to Choose, is an absolute must-read.
Why is this the line? Why, at the recent Region 4 conference of the Labour Party I attended, did a remit on medical funding for trans people pass with no problems (I’m not going near the subsequent media statements by Labour MPs), and a remit on end of life choice pass with no problems, but a remit on abortion failed?
I can’t speak for the people who voted against it or spoke against it. I can only guess, and probably unfairly, about why abortion gets treated as a special issue.
But these are the facts.
Abortion is a crime in New Zealand. It is only allowed under certain circumstances, on the agreement of two separate physicians. Rape is not grounds for an abortion – it was specifically omitted because our lawmakers assumed pregnant people would just lie about being raped. You know, the way we always do.
Abortion access is very difficult for some people. The Abortion Supervisory Committee has regularly highlighted this. Until very recently, pregnant people seeking abortions who live in Invercargill had to travel to Christchurch, on a specific day of the week, sometimes staying overnight, to have their terminations. Pregnant people from the West Coast still have to do this.
Our abortion laws were written in the late 70s. Medical technology has moved on – that’s why Right to Life hope to be able to force the Family Planning clinic in Tauranga to stop providing safer, easier, cheaper medication abortions. Society has moved on.
I cannot accept that it is impossible to explain this issue clearly and concisely to people – and get a good, constructive response.
In fact, I know it’s not impossible. In 2013 Alison McCulloch did a Prochoice Highway tour across New Zealand, and received overwhelmingly positive reactions. When you have a chat to people and say “Hey, did you know abortion is still a crime in New Zealand law? Did you know pregnant people have to get two different doctors to sign off on their procedure, and have to plead mental illness to get it?” they are surprised. That’s not the New Zealand they know – the liberal hippie paradise which gave women the vote first and kicked out American nuclear subs. Our abortion laws are worse that America’s – that shocks people.
And when you tell them that people still have to raise money to fly to Australia for abortions if they don’t find out they’re pregnant early enough, they’re shocked. Or that abortion providers are still targeted for vandalism and abuse, in this day and age.
The message is simple: abortion is a common, safe medical procedure, governed by laws from the 70s. There’s nothing radical about acknowledging they need to change. There’s nothing scary about letting pregnant people be in control of their own bodies.
Yes, the religious extremists will howl and wail and threaten divine retribution. Just like they did for prostitution law reform. Just like they did for civil unions. Just like they did for marriage equality. But for God’s sake, New Zealand. Maurice Williamson of all people became an international star on the basis of mocking that kind of ridiculous scare-mongering.
They are bullies. They attack us to make us back down. And time and time again, on this issue, we – the progressive left of New Zealand politics – have rewarded their behaviour by shying away from it.
All we need is the courage to say “our abortion laws are outdated. Bringing them in line with modern medical knowledge will save taxpayer dollars and provide huge benefits to New Zealand women.* It’s the right thing to do and you’re right. There are other important issues too. So isn’t it great how quickly we can fix this one and move on?”
This issue isn’t going away. So why not make it a win?
*Not only women get pregnant.