In 1977, a little-known piece of legislation called the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act came into effect. It set out a narrow and restrictive framework under which New Zealand women could obtain an abortion. It followed a Royal Commission and was intended to be conservative and obstructive; doctors were so scared of prosecution that an estimated 4000 to 4500 women had to fly to Australia to access abortion services over the two years following the act's implementation.
Of course, in time the legislation backfired on the conservative anti-abortion movement. In one sense, in the long term, the act was a victory for the abortion rights movement (though it certainly didn't seem like one at the time) as it allowed for legal abortion in New Zealand for reasons other than "for the preservation of the life of the mother", which had previously been the only legal justification for abortion in this country. In effect, the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act, alongside additions to the Crimes Act, acted as a legislative loophole that maintained abortion's status as a criminal offence, but allowed terminations to be legally administered in certain situations. In practice, today that means that most abortions are approved on the grounds that continuing the pregnancy would put the mother's mental health at risk.
Contrary to what anti-abortion campaigners would have you believe, however, obtaining an abortion is not an easy task, requiring numerous appointments and much hoop-jumping. It is especially difficult for rural women, who have to travel great distances to access the care they need. The reality is that most of the women seeking an abortion are forced to endure considerable disruption to their lives and lie to two unfamiliar doctors about the state of their mental health in order to assert their agency over their own bodies. Meanwhile, in the background, abortion technically remains a crime.
The inclusion of abortion in the Crimes Act treats women as either human assets fit for forced use as incubators or idiots unable to make health decisions for themselves, depending on how charitable your reading of it is. Imagine the outcry if men had to make appointments to see two different doctors and lie to them about an impending mental breakdown in order to make their own reproductive choices. Expecting women to do so to avoid the fate of becoming a walking incubator for a child they, for whatever reason, do not want, is insulting.
Which is why it's time for the women's advocates in all corners of Parliament's debating chamber to join forces. Abortion law reform is on the Government's agenda, and will be debated in the house over the next few weeks. While it will be introduced as a Government bill, it will be a conscience issue, with MPs free to vote whichever way they choose without worrying about party lines.
That doesn't mean that politics will be removed from the issue. Groups from various sides of the debate will be lobbying MPs, hoping to sway them one way or the other. This argument has never been a clean one, and the anti-abortion movement has a history of using questionable tactics. Disturbing and doctored images of babies and fetuses are commonly used to skew perceptions, and misleading claims about links between terminations, cancer and infertility have been floated by various anti-abortion campaigners over the years. I don't imagine that the discussion around law reform will be any different.
Against that background, it is incumbent upon the feminist politicians in the house particularly to stand up for women. National's Amy Adams has already accepted the call to arms issued to her by Justice Minister Andrew Little. A long-standing supporter of safe and legal abortion, Adams is the perfect person to rally support among her blue colleagues. I hope that likely future National Party leader Judith Collins, Paula Bennett, Anne Tolley and all of the other senior National Party women will stand beside her and do the right thing. I hope the senior men in the party will too.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
A number of MPs have already indicated that they support abortion law reform. Bennett told Villainesse.com in 2017 that she was pro-choice. Act's David Seymour told the same website that he believes that "abortion is about a woman's body and her choice". I'd be surprised if any Green Party MP voted against reform, and even Winston Peters appears to support it, with New Zealand First MP Tracey Martin echoing his desire for abortion to be "safe, legal and rare".
While there will always be a temptation to play politics, I hope that they and their colleagues all stand up to do the right thing for women. If political game-playing gets in the way of reform, it is vulnerable women who will suffer. Politicians must remember that while they consider how they will vote. And in some cases, they'll need to block out the noise of the few trying to drown out the noise of the many.
The anti-abortion faction will be outspoken, and it will be well-resourced. Several wealthy churches oppose abortion and there are long-standing incorporated societies dedicated to fighting legalising abortion. Recent polling shows that the majority of the population supports safe and legal abortion, but the vocal minority will likely do everything it can to suggest otherwise. I learned this the hard way, when Right to Life New Zealand took the Herald to the Press Council when I voiced my support for legalising abortion back in 2016, and thankfully duly lost. Despite such vocal opposition, however, it feels like the time is finally right for change. When the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act went through Parliament in 1977, there were only four women in the house. Now, a woman who voiced her support for legalising abortion in a televised debate during an election leads this country.
We've come a long way and 42 years later, I'm cautiously optimistic that 2019 will be the year when we make abortion safe, legal and accessible to those who need it.