Wednesday, March 08, 2006

An uplifting tale of women's rights being trampled

In 1977 New Zealand passed abortion legislation that was described as the most repressive in the Western world and, apart from a couple of minor modifications in 1978, it hasn't been changed since. If a woman wants to have an abortion in New Zealand she must get two certifying consultants (these are registered doctors who are selected on the basis that their views aren't in conflict with current abortion law) to agree that she meets the following criteria:

That the continuance of the pregnancy would result in serious danger (not being danger normally attendant upon childbirth) to the life, or to the physical or mental health, of the woman or girl . . .; or

(aa)That there is a substantial risk that the child, if born, would be so physically or mentally abnormal as to be seriously handicapped; or

(b)That the pregnancy is the result of sexual intercourse between—

(i)A parent and child; or
(ii)A brother and sister, whether of the whole blood or of the half blood; or
(iii)A grandparent and grandchild; or

(c)That the pregnancy is the result of sexual intercourse that constitutes an offence against section 131(1) of this Act[this means a dependent family member]; or

(d)That the woman or girl is severely subnormal within the meaning of section 138(2) of this Act.
If I discovered that I was pregnant tomorrow I would go to my doctor (this would be free because maternity care in New Zealand is free) who would refer me to the euphemistically named Level J Unit in the Wellington Public hospital. I would have to make two appointments (neither of which would cost me anything) where I'd have to talk to a whole lot of people, and at the end of the second appointment I could have by abortion by suction (which I'd choose, but because I live in Wellington I also have the option of medical abortion). The abortion would be safe, on demand and free (the three things I want all abortions to be).

The point of this post is that despite the hideous laws we have in New Zealand I have better abortion access than most American women. I think that talking about the New Zealand abortion situation is all I have to offer women in South Dakota, and the rest of the States. I know most abortion activists in America know far more about this than I do, but this is a tale which begins with laws being tightened and ends with access being loosened - I thought it might sound like good news.

Reading about comparative abortion law makes it clear that there is often very little relationship between abortion law and abortion practice, except for occasional ceremonial public fight. New Zealand is the positive example of that, the United States is the negative.

New Zealand women didn't have a legal right to abortion before the law change, but from 1974 if you could get up to Auckland in your first trimester then Auckland Medical Aid Centre would probably give you one, basically they were ignoring the law. They were raided by the cops, and faced prosecution, but the juries wouldn't convict the abortion doctor. There were several attempts to change the law and close the clinic but they failed due to general incompentence.

Before the law change there were also some underground networks, people who knew how to do menstrual extraction (which is a skill well worth learning, particularly because you don't have to wait for someone to need an abortion to practice it) and doctors and who were performing abortions of dubious legality.

Immediately after the law was passed you could not get a legal abortion in New Zealand (although there were probably some D&C operations that had the purpose of ending a pregnancy). Instead if a woman was going to get an abortion she had to fly to Australia. This cost $500 then, which would be $2,652.14 now (that's $1,736.89 US). This was made reasonably seamless by SOS (Save Our Sisters) groups, that would do all the organising required to get someone to Australia, and do some subsidising of travel. There were complications: one of the big abortion clinics in Australia started subsidising the SOS groups to try and increase their business.

The best estimate anyone can do actually shows the number of abortions New Zealand women had over this period going up after the law change, it's just they were all happening in Australia. Then slowly more abortions were allowed, and the boundaries began to be pushed. Now 98% of abortions are done under the grounds that the continuance of the pregnancy would result in serious danger (not being danger normally attendant upon childbirth) to the mental health of the woman or girl.


  1. SO much better there than here. Here even though it's been legal everywhere is seldom accessible or affordable, not to mention the recent debacle. Luckily I am a scientist so I can work just about anywheres.

  2. "...occasional ceremonial public fight."
    Nicely observed, very well phrased. At some point I'm sure to steal it...

  3. Anonymous6:34 pm

    "...occasional ceremonial public fight." - yes that is a good point - like the fight recently here (Canada) over whether the Canadian abortion rights activist and clinic pioneer Henry Morgentaler should be allowed to receive an honourary doctorate from the University of Western Ontario. It had been suggested before, but no one had the guts til 2005, for fear of the anti-abortion crowd. Not surprisingly, a protest was well-funded by American backers (I wish they'd stay the #$^%$&* out of my country damn it) but UWO ignored them, and the world did not end as predicted.

    But we have access *and* costs are covered here - we in fact have *no* abortion law, it was struck down in 1988 (used to be similar to NZ) - Morgantaler's case in fact - the law was found to violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms because it infringes upon a woman's right to "life, liberty and security of person."

    So we have both things - access and coverage. It's not perfect, since many women in remote areas with no hospital have thus reduced access, for instance. But it's something to thank heaven for - and fight like a wolverine for too.

  4. you like my feminist mascot idea?

  5. Should abortions (I mean those that dont seriously endanger your health) be free? I mean any more free than any other non essential operation?

    As to the argument that the aborted births endanger mental health and should thus be on a par with health care for a burn victim - I accept that might be the case (especially where it was the result of a rape) but how often would it be more so than a lack of cosmetic surgery?

    Maybe they should just set up an abortion loans scheme - kinda like the student loans scheme so everyone can afford it but most still have to pay for it.

    Or maybe cosmetic surgery should be free. it is pretty unfair that some people are born pretty...