Alison McCulloch: Our position on rape

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America might be the "greatest nation on Earth", as its politicians so often say, but in the middle of an election campaign, it's definitely also the craziest.

A lot of the recent crazy has been focused on cracking down on women's reproductive rights, in particular, a statement by Republican Senate candidate and House member Todd Akin that "legitimate" rape rarely causes pregnancy.

He made the comment while defending his position that abortion shouldn't be allowed even in cases of rape.

Before we start snorting too loudly about American extremism, though, it's worth taking a look at our own house.

In New Zealand, rape is not a legal ground for abortion - something right-wing US politicians would love to achieve.

And while there's certainly a push going on in the US to crack down on abortion access, as things stand, the US has much more liberal abortion laws than New Zealand does.

There, under the 1973 Roe v Wade decision, abortion is legal to around 24 weeks. Here, abortion is covered by the Crimes Act at all stages of pregnancy, and is only legal under a set of narrow grounds, of which rape is not one.

And the reason why it was excluded is pretty sobering.

The 1977 Royal Commission on abortion, on which our current laws are based, actually made an argument frighteningly similar to the one Todd Akin is now furiously backing away from.

In its report, the Commission noted, citing some questionable sources, that among a "considerable number of rape victims" there was a "very low incidence of pregnancy".

Even worse, it went on to argue that if rape were a ground for abortion, women would simply lie about being raped.

Or, in its words, including rape would "for the very few women which it would benefit, be the subject of abuse".

Instead it recommended use of the morning after pill, or an IUD. Yes, having an intra-uterine device inserted into her body is just what a woman who has been raped really wants.

The ensuing debate in Parliament sank even lower than the Commission's report, if that's possible, with the Minister of Justice at the time talking about "true rape cases" (sounds a lot like Akin's "legitimate" rape, don't you think?) and evidence that pregnancy resulting from rape "is almost nil".

Like the Commission, the minister said allowing rape as a ground for abortion would encourage "abortion on dishonest request - abortion by subterfuge".

Nice to see the high levels of trust MPs back then placed in their female constituents. Correction: Male MPs.

When our abortion law was passed, the 87-member Parliament included just four women, who all opposed it.

Late last month, New Zealand got its seventh periodic report from the United Nations committee on CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women), and was found wanting on several fronts, including abortion.

It's worth closing with a direct quote from the UN's observations, since I couldn't put it better myself: "The Committee notes with concern, however, the convoluted abortion laws which require women to get certificates from two certified consultants before an abortion can be performed, thus making women dependent on the benevolent interpretation of a rule which nullifies their autonomy. The Committee is also concerned that abortion remains criminalised in [New Zealand], which leads women to seek illegal abortions, which are often unsafe."

Disclosure: Alison McCulloch is actively involved in the pro-choice movement. Her book on the history of the abortion rights struggle in New Zealand is due out next year.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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