Every week, all around the country, New Zealand women contend with a nearly 40-year-old law that treats them like idiots who cannot make their own decisions. They are made to jump through a series of hoops, forced to lie to doctors who must basically look the other way, and required to put up with long waiting periods. They do all this in order to obtain an abortion.
New Zealand has a chequered history when it comes to the termination of pregnancy. In 1936, New Zealand's first Abortion Inquiry found that "women of all classes are demanding the right to decide how many children they will have," although the Government of the day refused to grant them that courtesy. It's worth noting that, legislatively speaking, the Government of today still denies its female citizens that freedom.
In 1961, the Crimes Act was revised, counting among statutes concerning murder, bestiality and slavery a section on abortion that hadn't been substantially updated since 1908. In 1977, the prescribed punishment of a maximum of seven years in prison (although arguably an improvement on 1908's "seven years' imprisonment with hard labour") for women who sought an abortion was removed from the Act, while the new Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act implemented a set of complicated rules regulating the procedure.
In 2016, some 38 years later, I wrote in the Herald, "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."
In 2017, nothing has changed. Abortion is still a crime, women are still forced to pretend that the "continuance" of a pregnancy will result in "serious danger" to their mental health, and Parliament remains too gutless to confront the issue, with many parties saying abortion law reform is "not a priority" for them.
Why is the law surrounding agency over women's bodies not a priority to our representatives? Why, when a number of women have now bravely spoken out about their stressful, time-consuming and frustrating experiences of seeking an abortion in New Zealand, are their stories still being ignored?
I suspect the real answer is that many of our politicians are scared of tackling such a controversial topic. They know just how strongly some people feel about it and, although a recent poll showed the majority of New Zealanders are in favour of abortion being legal, they are afraid of igniting a public debate that may diminish their support among a vocal minority of their constituents.
Despite reluctance to broach the subject, a number of senior politicians are actually in favour of a woman's right to make her own decision to seek an abortion. Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett recently told Villainesse that she is "pro-choice" and if a private member's bill was drawn that proposed reforming abortion legislation, she "would want to ensure that women are better off". Labour Leader Andrew Little told the website that he's "a strong supporter of a woman's right to choose" and that "abortion should not be in the Crimes Act. It is not a crime."
New Zealand First's policy for abortion is "safe, rare and legal", with one of its candidates recently describing the party as "pro-choice", and the Green Party has a policy of removing abortion from the Crimes Act, which Co-Leader Metiria Turei recently said the whole caucus would vote to support. ACT Party Leader David Seymour also supports legislative reform.
The Prime Minister, a deeply conservative Catholic, is opposed to abortion reform. In 2007, he told Parliament he believes that abortion legislation was "framed by Parliament with the intention of protecting the unborn". During the same speech, he grumbled about how difficult it had been when he was Health Minister to compel the Ministry of Health to publish a photograph of a foetus in a pamphlet intended for women considering abortions. He made the astonishing admission that he "went to the library and found a picture [himself]".
More recently, he told TVNZ's Q+A that he'd be "quite happy" if his vote set the tone for others. Which is entirely unsurprising, given politicians have long been setting the tone for Kiwi women, whether they like it or not.
This year, the Abortion Supervisory Committee, a body set up under the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act 1977, told Parliament it believes that abortion legislation needs to be reviewed. Though it is likely that most New Zealanders have not read the relevant legislation, as someone who has spent hours wading through it while researching for this and other articles, I can testify that it is cumbersome, extremely prescriptive and largely at odds with the way that our healthcare system deals with abortion in practice. It also refers to doctors exclusively as "he", which is a fairly good symbol of just how out of date it is.
Another indication of its vintage is the requirement that any so-called "certifying consultant" empowered by the Abortion Supervisory Committee to rubber-stamp abortions must not hold the view that "the question of whether an abortion should or should not be performed in any case is entirely a matter for the woman and a doctor to decide". Interpreted strictly, the law prohibits physicians who believe in a woman's right to agency over her body and decisions from becoming certifying consultants.
In Aotearoa we so desperately want to believe that we are world-leading when it comes to women's rights, but our abortion laws are some of the most restrictive in the world. This should be an election issue, not because we're lagging behind our global neighbours, but because women deserve better.
As Gloria Steinem famously said, "the power of the State stops at our skin". Politicians need to take their laws and butt out of our uteruses.