Lizzie Marvelly: It's her body, it should be her choice

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Photo / iStock
Photo / iStock

I have never needed to have an abortion. I count myself lucky. As many people who have lived, lusted and loved could likely testify, it could have been a different story. Nothing is 100 per cent reliable, and sometimes even the best-laid plans can go awry. On the flipside, sometimes sexual assaults can bring a horrific, gut-wrenching surprise.

Pregnancy doesn't discriminate between the prepared and the utterly unsuspecting. It just happens.

And thus, so does abortion.

Abortion is still a crime in New Zealand. It is obtainable, if one jumps through a number of hoops, but according to the Crimes Act (1961) abortion is technically illegal.

In order to have an abortion in New Zealand, you must be referred by a GP or by Family Planning to two certifying doctors who must believe that one of 10 grounds for an exception is satisfied. These include incest, fetal impairment and danger to a woman's health, though they don't include rape (which is merely to be "taken into account").

As protective of individual freedoms as we'd like to believe we are, in the eyes of the law, whether or not an abortion can go ahead is a decision made not by women, but by the doctors who care for them.

In practice, the most commonly used justification is that continuing a pregnancy would cause serious danger to the mental health of the woman or girl. Basically, a woman has to plead grave mental suffering in order to obtain an abortion.

In an ill-fitting and outdated way, it makes some sense. I know I'd suffer gravely if I were forced to continue a pregnancy I didn't want. I can think of very few things worse than having my body co-opted by a serious medical event that I was powerless to put an end to.

If the option to obtain an abortion legally weren't available, I would quite possibly seek alternative means - as many thousands of women have over the centuries, and still do - with variously tragic results.

But in our modern, developed world, to have to claim mental suffering to two consultants in order to obtain an abortion is frankly paternalistic and patronising.

Those doctors are heroes, and they save many women's lives, but if a woman does not want to continue a pregnancy, that should be justification enough.

It is her body, and it should be her choice. She shouldn't need to justify her decision to anybody, least of all the Crown and its agents.

She shouldn't be forced against her will to speak to a counsellor or have to wait for an enforced period between her first and second appointments to think about her decision, especially when she has had to travel a great distance.

She should also have access to abortion services regardless of where she lives. Women in Whanganui or Palmerston North, for example, must travel to Wellington in order to have an abortion.

Women have been having abortions pretty much forever. In 2014, 13,137 New Zealand women had abortions, and one in four Kiwi women will have an abortion during her lifetime.

Despite its prevalence, abortion is one of those things that is most often whispered about between close friends. It is seldom spoken of openly, for fear of judgment.

It is a basic medical procedure, much safer than childbirth itself, but it remains stigmatised even today.

When it comes to reproductive health, we're not the only ones with issues. In the US, abortion is under constant threat.

A woman's right to agency over her own body, theoretically enshrined in the constitution with the passing of Roe v Wade, is being dismantled state by state. Obstetrician/gynaecologists are shot, clinics are bombed, ludicrous legal requirements are implemented and vulnerable women are harassed, all by so-called pro-life advocates.

Which is ironic, to say the least. How one can call oneself "pro-life" while prioritising the gestation of embryos and fetuses over the lives of women and those who care for them, I'll never know.

In Britain, like here in New Zealand, abortion remains in the Crimes Act.

A group of British midwives recently revolted against their union leader after she pledged support for the "We Trust Women" campaign to decriminalise abortion in the UK.

Even among professions dedicated entirely to supporting women, such as midwifery, abortion creates deep divisions.

Here at home we generally prefer not to talk about it. When a petition was presented to Parliament last year to make it compulsory for parents to be notified when girls and young women under 16 sought an abortion, few were willing to offer an opinion, even though such a law change could endanger vulnerable young people who seek an abortion as a result of incest or sexual violence, and undermine the trust young women have in their physicians.

The group that seems to be the most comfortable talking about abortion includes those most stringently against it. They publish emotionally charged newspaper ads with pictures of babies and puppies. I guess vets may find themselves to be next in the firing line.

They erect condescending billboards commanding women to "choose life" or "adopt, don't abort". They create websites and crisis hotlines advertising their apparently "neutral" pregnancy services for women. It's not until you dive deeply into the fine print that you realise their true motives.

All this results in an environment in which women are made to feel ashamed or judged for exercising a human right that has been affirmed by the United Nations. With our reluctance to speak openly about abortion, our antiquated laws and vocal anti-choice activists, a climate of secrecy, silence and stigma prevails.

Isn't it time to lift that cloud? Women have had the vote in this country for almost 123 years. Surely we can trust them enough to make their own decisions about their bodies for their own reasons - without requiring two doctors to deem them mentally at-risk.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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