Saturday, July 31, 2010

Keep On Walking Forward

A couple of weeks ago I sat in a room that was over-flowing with people who had got together to fight for abortion rights. The meeting had been spectacularly well organised. When I came back to campus the week before, there was chalking advertising the meeting, and talking about the importance of abortion rights, all over campus. It didn’t rain that week – so awesome, strong messages were there for everyone to see (you can still see a bit of the chalking, in the door to the Kirk building, just under the overbridge).

To listen to dozens of people, mostly women, mostly younger than me, explain why they thought abortion rights were important, and why they were prepared to fight for them was not something I had ever experienced, or expected to experience.

I learned about our abortion law alone, in the Alexander Turnbull Library manuscripts reading room, with no. I couldn’t work for more than three quarters of an hour at a time looking through some of those files; I’d get so angry and upset I’d need a break. I once kicked the stone that said: This Building Was Opened By Rob Muldoon. My foot hurt, and I didn’t feel any better.

I felt alone. Most people I knew didn’t even know what the law was. I didn’t think I could do anything

I was wrong. Of course I was wrong. New Zealand’s abortion laws are outrageous, and of course there was heaps of passion about this injustice. There were always people who were prepared to fight the fight – it was just we all felt isolated, and had fifty three million other things to do, so nothing changed.

It appears that the Chris Trotter and Tammy X “abortion is kind of icky and won’t somebody think of the labour party” arguments won and Steve Chadwick’s bill will not be put in the ballot at the moment. Obviously I'm disappointed and disgusted.

But after the meeting we had – I know it doesn’t matter. We can educate, agitate and organise, until we’re strong enough to overpower MPs near pathological aversion to talking about abortion.

Whether next year or next decade, we will change abortion laws. We’re going to have honest laws that do not have unnecessary toll-gates in the way of women seeking for abortion.

And when we do I will look back on Monday the 19th of July as the night that I thought: “We’re gonna win.”

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Another myth about abortion

One of the ideas that permeates the abortion debate in so many ways is that supporting abortion rights is a minority position.

You see this partly in the idea that the law is cucrently 'outdated' (which is common even among those trying to change the law) as if it reflected it's time. Chris Trotter also strongly implied it - with the idea that hundreds of thousands of decent well-meaning people were behind the law as it stands now.

This is untrue - the current abortion law was wildly unpopular when it passed. 318,820 voting aged people signed the REPEAL petition (much like it sounded a petition to repeal the restrictive abortion laws) in 13 weeks. When you think about how many CIR have struggled to get that number of signatures - let alone that percentage of the population, you will understand it was a staggeringly unpopular law.

In this thread (warning the original post makes Chris Trotter look like a hardcore supporter of a woman's right to choose) the idea that abortion is a minority position bandied about by both supporters and opponents of law change.

Gaging public opinion on abortion is always difficult - the way the questions are worded makes a huge different to the way people answer them. But support for women having access to abortion is solid, and support for denying access to abortion is not.

More importantly in the 1970s public opinion on abortion swung very quickly. There are probably many reasons for this, but the most important is that women were speaking openly about their experiences of having an abortion and claimed abortion as a right - this position quickly resonated with people.

Those who support a woman's right to choose are not a minority, and the best way to build our movement is to make sure we don't act like one.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The (non-existent) relationship between abortion law and abortion rates

In early 1978, after the current abortion law was passed, it was almost impossible to get a legal abortion in New Zealand.* The law was incredibly badly drafted - the interaction of the implementation dates of different clauses was unclear, and no-one was prepared to take a risk. Feminists responded by organising SOS - Sisters Overseas Service - so women could get abortions in Australia.

Before the new law for most New Zealand women the easiest way to get an abortion was from the Auckland Medical Aid Centre - which was challenging the law and providing abortion on demand in the first trimester, at a relatively low cost. After the new law came in it cost $500 (including the trip to Australia) - $3,000 in today's money.

And yet, by the best estimates New Zealand women had more abortions in 1978 than they had in 1977. They certainly didn't have fewer abortions.**

To be absolutely clear - when New Zealand passed what was then one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the Western world and the cost of abortion increased dramatically - the total number of abortions New Zealand women had went up.

I mention this as a response to Chris Trotter's ridiculous column:

Does Ms Chadwick not believe that 18,382 abortions are enough? Does she think there should be more? Has the existing legislation created an unfulfilled demand for abortion which her proposed private members bill seeks to satisfy?***

While it is true that restrictive abortion laws deny some women access to abortion, and I don't want to minimise those women's experiences, the vast majority of women who want an abortion in New Zealand do get one - just as they did in 1977. New Zealand's restrictive abortion laws have never had a significant impact on the abortion rate - that's not how abortion law or access works.****

I'm not an activist on this issue because I'm fighting for women to have abortions. Quinine, hot baths, knitting needles, trips to Auckland, vitamin C, menstrual extraction, trips to Australia, telling the doctors what they need to hear about their mental health - women do what needs to be done to terminate a pregnancy.

Yes women in New Zealand generally manage to jump through the hoops that have been set up (if they didn't then we would have had abortion law reform a long time ago - just like the only reason Ireland gets away with having such restrictive abortion laws is because women can go to the UK). But (and I will go into this in more detail soon) those hoops have a cost - time off work, travel, childcare and stress. A cost which has nothing to do with the reality of abortion. A cost I don't think women should have to pay.

I'm an activist on this issue, because I think women should not have to pay a penance to someone else's morality before they get access to abortion.

* A much smaller number of abortions were carried out in other hospitals, and probably provisions for illegal abortions in some places.

** The graph of women between the ages of 16-45 travelling to Australia for a period of less than 5 days has a huge spike at this time. On top of that there are details from groups such as SOS.

*** And he trots out the compromise lie - it was not a compromise - it was a complete victory for the other side - the voting record and debate demonstrates that very clearly.

**** Seriously this is abortion politics 101 - the law makes minimal difference to the rate of abortion. It doesn't matter how high the cost for an abortion is - almost all women will pay it, because the cost of a pregnancy, let alone a child, is going to be greater.

Monday, July 05, 2010


It's going to be all abortion-blogging all the time this week (at least)from me. I have a lot to say.

But before I say anything else I just want to pay tribute to the women who fought the battles - who got us here.

The abortion fight in the 1970s was intensely long and gruelling. As I was growing up I knew abortion was an option (although I wasn't aware how ridiculous the laws were). It was only an option because people fought so long and hard both before and after the law changed.

As well as those who pushed the issue forward in the 1970s, there have also been women who have kept the issue alive over the years. Particularly at ALRANZ.

I've always loved the metaphor that those of us who are fighting for a better world are each a link in the chain - and I think as we make more chain we should appreciate that which already exists.

24 weeks

It's been great to see a wide range of support of Steve Chadwick's legislation. But one area that has seen less support is the proposed time limit of 24 weeks. There are physilogical arguments about fetal pain and development and viability, but those aren't the arguments I want to make.* I want to go back to first principles.

Those who are uncertain about a 24 week time limit make arguments like Dita De Boni did in the Herald:

But there was one part of Steve's bill that had me stumped. Why is she proposing that the timeframe for abortions be moved to 24 weeks, when currently it is stated in law that no abortions can be performed on women after the 20th week of pregnancy, except to save a woman's life?
A similar issue was raised in a comment thread by Ms P
This may risk setting of some kind of comment bomb, especially in light of the comments in earlier posts:( Also, I've never been pregnant so acknowledge my ignorance about the timelines for obtaining an abortion, but 20-24 weeks seems quite advanced in the pregnancy to be accessing abortion. What do people think of the criteria listed for the bill?

There is a story that gives one answer to this question. In 2007, a woman with pre-existing heart waited 15 weeks for a heart examination once she got pregnant. In the twenty first week of her pregnancy she was told that she had heart problems. She asked for an abortion, but was told that it was too late for an abortion, as the risk of her having health problems wasn't bit enough. The baby was delivered dead by caesarean section when she was thirty weeks better, and the woman died four hours later.

The best person to make decisions about what is acceptable risk during pregnancy is the woman who is pregnant.

It's really important that people don't give into their own 'icky' response when it comes to late-term abortion. Yes the pregnancy is quite far advanced at 22 weeks - you know who knows that better than anyone else? The woman who is pregnant, has a rapidly growin fetus inside that has started moving and kicking.

Unless you are absolutely anti-abortion (and very few people are, which is why you get rape and incest exceptions in most legislation),** then you believe there should be a decision maker who weighs up the pros and cons of having an abortion - balances the life stage that the foetus is at, the risks of the procedure, and the desires of the pregnant woman. I think some people slip into wanting to be that decision maker themselves - "Well 23 weeks is very advanced. I'm not saying you can't have an abortion then, but you better have a very good reason" That's the logic that resulted in our current law - the state took the position that some abortions were necessary, but that special neutral doctors were the only people to decide whether or not an individual abortion is OK.

But it's a terrible solution. Because one of two things happen, sometimes the gatekeepers abdicate their role as gatekeepers, as Certifying Consultants have largely done in the current environement, and allow women to make their own decisions. In which case the decision-makers are just meaningless hoops, that take money, time and energy for women to jump through. Or they act as gatekeepers, and women are forced to remain pregnant, and sometimes women die.

There is a simple, elegant, solution to all this. Accept that there needs to be a decision maker who balances many different issues, including the stage of pregnancy, but agree that the best person to be that decision maker is the pregnant woman.

This is what I meant about holding the line. Dita De Boni gave a spurious argument that currently 0.5% of abortions happen after 20 weeks. Leaving aside that's because some women are denied them, should we abandon those 80 women just because they're a minority? Just because it makes it messier? Should we say - of course most women shouldn't have to use their resources to jump through administrative hoops to end a pregnancy - but if there's only a few of them why don't we just ignore them and focus on everyone else.

The core argument about abortion is the same at week 8 as it is at week 24. If you trust women to make their own decisions, then you trust women to make their own decisions at any stage in pregnancy.

* Now I should be clear that I don't actually support the 24 week limit - I believe that women are as capable of making their own decisions at week 25 as they are in week 24. I will talk later about why I can support this bill anyway, but there are some aspects of existing law that I want to discuss first.

** Except New Zealand's of course, because our MPs thought that if you could get an abortion if you were raped would lie about being raped to get an abortion.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

People who are lying about abortion law reform

So the only material we have about Steve Chadwick's proposed private members bill is one NZ Herald article. A lot of the people quoted in the article make reference to the origins of the current law - a topic I happen to know a reasonable amount about. History important for many reasons, including that some people will try and twist it to their own ends, and it helps to know the truth.

So liar the first Bernard Moran, president of Voice for Life (that's SPUC that was):

The present law is a compromise to recognise that there is an unborn child, that there is a human person involved in this procedure.
Decriminalisation would basically be saying that the human person, the child, has no value whatsoever; it's like removing an abscess or a tooth. That's a modern form of barbarism.
You see this idea repeated by quite a few different people, but it's absolutely incorrect - our current law is not a compromise. The law we have now was a total victory for misogynist anti-abortionists. The law was written and promoted by misogynist anti-abortionists David Lange and Bill Birch (respectively). None of the women in parliament voted for it. It was a horrific desperate defeat for feminists all over the country. Over 300,000 people signed a petition to repeal the law. For more than a year after the law was passed women who needed abortions flew to Australia to get them.

The current law is a savage defeat.

Then there's Phil Goff: "Labour leader Phil Goff said he hadn't given the matter much thought."

Deborah and QoT have both responded to this. But I had a slightly different reaction which was "Bullshit." In 1977 and 1978 Phil Goff was the spokesperson for Young Labour. Young Labour actively opposed the current abortion law. Phil Goff got a reasonable amount of publicity. The sort of person who goes on to become leader of the opposition, pays attention to the media coverage they get when they're 24. He has thought about abortion. He knows where he stands. He may not want to talk about abortion, but the rest is bullshit.

Holding the line

So I have lots to say about Steve Chadwick's proposed private members bill, but I want to start with the nature of abortion law.

New Zealand abortion law is appalling. Parliament is not short of people who know this, but it is short of people who are afraid to do anything about it:

Helen Clark and Phil Goff spoke out about how bad the law we have now is back when it passed, but they haven't done anything about it, since they had the power to.* Sue Bradford, Sue Kedgley, Keith Locke, Ruth Dyson, Margaret Wilson, Marianne Hobbes, Maryann Street - they were prepared to fight this battle in the 1970s, before they got into parliament, they were feminists (or feminist supporters) then. And it's not just those who are in parliament now the numbers have been there for at least the last nine years, others had their chance: Jonathan Hunt, Matt Robeson, Laila Harre, and especially Phillida Bunkle.
So the fact that Steve Chadwick has stepped up - is far more impressive than it should be.

But it's barely even a beginning. Those of us who support women's right to access abortion and make choices about our own bodies cannot just wait for those in parliament to do the right thing. Because they probably won't.

It's not just about whether Steve Chadwick's bill ever gets put in the ballot. It's about what happens next; the Herald's report makes the bill sound very solid. Not my idea of perfect abortion law - but an abortion law that will not put up barriers or demand resources from women before they can access abortion (again I'll write more about that in the next few days).

But abortion law is a strange thing - and often those making it succumb to: "Yes women have a right to access abortion, but we have to remember that abortion is icky".

As Idiot/Savant points out - the danger isn't just that this law won't get through, but that it'll get through with various hooks in it. That those who theoretically believe in a woman's right to chose will bow to the backlash, and use the 'icky' instinct as a justification. Parental notification laws are an obvious example of ways to put huge obstacles in the way for some women, but the US has so many examples of ways to make things difficult for women, while theoretically maintaining a right to abortion.

In order to get meaningful change in abortion law, that'll make a difference to women's lives, everyone involved has to hold the line. Those in parliament won't suppress their 'abortion is icky response' if the organising all comes from misogynist anti-abortionists.

Deborah suggests writing to MPs, which is a start, but only a start. We'll need to do so much more than that to make sure the MPs have no choice but to hold the line.

I think a really good start would be public meetings of those who support the proposed bill. Anyone interested in organising them?

Note for commenters: This post is not for a discussion of the morality of abortion. But a space to talk about how those of us who oppose the current law can organise.