Monday, October 31, 2011

On thinking...

Unless you follow pro-life blogs,* you may not have realised that pro-life New Zealand has linked a campaign called Just Think. They're super modern and aimed at youth, which you can tell because it's on facebook. Their basic campaign strategy appears to be women are quite dim and don't realise that if they don't have an abortion they'll have a baby.** You think I'm kidding? This is their poster:

[Text: You know, I used to think abortion was ok, and then something happened to me - I had a baby of my own.  So I haven't figured it all out yet... but why is that when I wanted a baby she was a baby...and when I didn't, she was something else?]

You'll notice that even in the text of an anti abortion poster a woman isn't allowed to be articulate enough to explain that she's anti-abortion.  It's just that babies and pregnancy confuse her.

On one level it's just a terrible, terrible poster, but I think it is also quite revealing about one of the conundrums of being 'pro-life' (heavy sarcastic quote marks).

30-60% of New Zealand women get an abortion (I've heard both figures - the lower one from more reliable sources -  either demonstrates my point).  If you believe that abortion is murder (which pro-lifers probably don't - but say that they do) then that figure is horrific.  You either have to believe that thirty per cent of women are murderers.  Or say "They know not what they do."

And because outright misogyny is damn unattractive, often even to other misogynists, pro-lifers chose to portray women as incapable of thought.  It's not that we're choosing to have have abortions - it's that we're being tricked and are too stupid to know what an abortion is.

The pro-choice position reflects the reality of women's lives: the number of women who have abortions, the fact that political belief about abortion is not a good predictor of willingness to have an abortion and the necessity of abortion for people who are pregnant and don't want to be.   Anti-abortionists won't even portray women as capable of making the decision to be anti-abortion.  We believe that women (and other pregnant people) are the best people to make decisions in their own lives.

* I do it so you don't have to - and also because Andy Moore's youtube channel
has to be seen to be believed.

** I'm using 'women' t deliberately in this case to describe how they see their target audience.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


Tonight Qantas management has locked-out its workers and grounded its plans across the world. The dispute itself is complicated, involving three unions, and lots of different issues.  But at it's heart it's about Qantas's desire to fire 1,000 people, and outsource the jobs, cutting wages and conditions.

As they are crying poverty it is worth pointing out that the CEO, Alan Joyce, received a 71% increase in his pay, and now gets $5 million a year.  Qantas's annual profit also doubled last year.

In Rangitikei, CMP meatworks demanded that its workers accepted a 20% pay cut.  It has locked out union members until they agree to this pay cut.  They have now been locked out for 11 days.

The recession gives employers power - and these lock-outs show that they're prepared to use it. The only way to stop employers doing what Qantas and CMP meatworks is doing - is not give in.  The collective .  By standing against companies, large and school, these workers are protecting other workers.  Because if their bosses succeed other companies will take note and do the same.

I haven't heard what solidarity Qantas workers are asking for, although I'll try to update this post if I hear anything.  But the CMP workers need money.  There are 100 of them, and they're trying to survive without wages. You can donate through internet banking here:

38-9007-0894028-08  NZCTU – Disputes Fund

If you're in Palmerston North you can also make donations of food at the union centre.

There's more to say - and if it continues I'll say more.  But the most important thing you can do this week to protect your wages and conditions (if you have a job) is to donate to the CMP workers lock-out fund.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Limits of Abortion as a Health Issue

Earlier this year we had a blogswarm for world health day "Abortion is a Health Issue Not a Crime."  I never finished my post, partly because I am have deep reservations about "Abortion is a Health Issue" (which is what the post ended up being about).  I'm posting it today as part of a week of pro-choice posts in the run up to the release of NZ's abortion statistics on the 28th.  I'm posting three posts this week, and I realised they have a theme - the importance of keeping "Trust women, and all pregnant people"* at the centre of any struggle for any abortion rights.


In 2004, a woman in New Zealand was told she was not allowed in abortion when she was diagnosed with a heart condition in the 21st week. She was told it was too late in the pregnancy and that she did not meet the criteria. She died after the baby was still-born.  Of course access to abortion is a health issue - women die when they don't have access to abortion. Abortion is a health issue, because women die when they don't have access to safe abortion.

But abortion is not only a health issue or even mostly a health issue.  Abortion is about autonomy, freedom, survival and social relationships.  The slogan "Abortion is a Health Issue" suggests a strategy which narrows the lens and focuses our struggle for abortion away from these wider issues.  Now I'm uncomfortable about this because autonomy is the core of why I support abortion rights.  But on top of that I think this strategy may have fish hooks - the discourse of 'health' may not be as useful for us as it first appears.

First off, abortion as a health issue appears to be an area where anti-abortion people are actively taking the abortion struggle. Incrementalism - the anti-abortion tactic of making things just a little bit worse -  is based on a facade of treating abortion as a health issue.  Whether it's 'informed consent' (those are heavily sarcastic scare quotes in case you can't tell) or states putting in ridiculous regulations about the height of the ceilings in the abortion clinic.  Anti-abortionists are actively interested in fighting abortion as a health issue.

On one level this is quite a strange position for anti-abortionists to take - because the science is really heavily not on their side. The only reason they manage to even engage with health is they take conveniently ignore that by the time someone is seeking an abortion they are choosing between continuing pregnancy and abortion - and abortion is safer than bringing a pregnancy to term.

I may think that anti-abortionists are have to be some combination of: lying, deluded, misogynists, who are incapable of argument, reason, empathy, compassion or logic.  But they have a goal, and there has to be a reason they do the things that they do (besdies the fact that they're lying, deluded, misogynists, who are incapable of argument, reason, empathy, compassion or logic).  There are some areas that they deliberately try to avoid: the reality of women's experiences, women's autonomy, and who should be the decision-maker.  They know these are losing strategies for them and they will just say 'but what about the baby' to try and distract from the fact that they don't want to talk about any of these things.

But they are prepared to talk about health? Why is that?

By talking about abortion and health we're bringing in a discourse that already exists, and those discourses can serve anti-abortionists purposes as much as ours.  Take their incrementalist demand for parental notification/consent for under 16 year olds.  At the moment abortion is treated as exceptional within the health system.  For other medical decisions children are legally treated as unable to consent, and parents have to give their consent.  Those who are trying to punish young girls, can use normal health practice and rhetoric about involving the family, and parents' responsibility for children's health to support their cause.**

The existing discourse about health serve anti-abortionists purposes as much as they serve ours. They can play on the idea that 'health' means there is one right decision and that people are not well equipped to make decisions about their own health. Discourses of health in our society are not about autonomy and liberation. They are moral discourses that are based on an ideal way of being. In order to be healthy you must do some things (exercise, eat certain foods) and not do other things (smoke, eat other foods). In health discourses people are not treated as competent decision makers, but people who have to be persuaded to adopt a limited array of behaviours.

Women can go through the process of being certified as needing an abortion under the mental health provisions in this country, and not realise it, and not realise how restrictive the laws are. One of the reasons for this, is because we're so used to gatekeepers to get access to health procedures, diagnoses, and pharmaceuticals, that talking to so many doctors seems normal.

The existing models and meanings for health are not the sort of abortion services I am fighting for. As Anna Caro points out: "The whole way our medical system’s set up seems antithetical to anyone’s autonomy." The slogan of last year's pro-choice demo was 'No More Jumping Through Hoops'. But for many people jumping through hoops is part of engaging with the medical system (The End is Naenae has an example of how much work, and how many gate keepers there can be to get what you need. Amanda W has a great post on second shift for the sick).

There were many brilliant posts written as part of the blogswarm. I think talking about abortion and health is a really important way of connecting with some people we need to connect to.  But focusing on abortion and health is an incredibly risk strategy.  I wished we lived in a world where discourses of health were always discourses of autonomy and liberation - but we don't. So we have to always keep the autonomy and liberation of women (and all pregnant people) at the centre of our demands around abortion.

* 'Women, and all pregnant people' is a phrase I'm trying out. I'm struggling to talk about abortion in a way that acknowledges that not all people who get pregnant identify as women and also acknowledges that the politics of abortion are about misogyny and the struggle for freedom of women as a class.  I welcome ideas and feedback

** I think there are two answers to that - .  The first is that children should have control over their own health care before the age of 16 and the law in general should change.  And the second is that abortion is specifically different from other health care.  However, I think this demonstrates the problem of trying to argue abortion as a health issue.  Either you are also trying to change the nature of the health system - or you're also arguing that abortion should be treated differently.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Repost: A Feminist Issue

It is four years today since the events I described in the first part of this post.  The grumpy sleepy baby is now six.  I got his name for this story from the Latin word for frog, which used to be his nickname; now he is old enough to object and explain the ways he is not like a frog: "Am I green? Do I croak?" Everyone else in this story is older too - and different, although not in such easily quantified ways.

But the prison is still there.  There was a visiting hour this morning.


When I knocked on the door at 7.15 that morning Anura was still asleep. Anura, aka the frog, is two, and his godless father was in prison. It was the first day any of us could visit Thomas,* and I wanted him to be able to see his godless son.

The visit didn't start until 8.30, but Rimutaka prison is half an hour's drive from Wellington and I was told to get there half an hour early. So Anura's mother woke him up, and I strapped a grumpy, sleepy baby into his carseat. We talked about the visit on our way up, me and Anura. "We're going to visit Thomas" I said; "Yeah" he said". "He's in prison" I said; "Yeah" he said. But mostly I just drove.

I'd heard that you could take property (which is corrections lingo for stuff) into the prison while you were visiting. I had my bag of baby stuff in one arm and my bag of prisoner stuff in the other as we went from the visitor's carpark to the gatehouse. We were a little late, and he was walking really slowly so I slung him on my hip, with my two bags. "Takahe" said Anura - although actually it was a Pukeko.

When we got to the gatehouse it was clear that I wouldn't be able to take anything in - everyone was putting everything they had into lockers. So I did too and we were the last to go through the metal detector. "One at a time" the guard said - so I sent the baby through first. Neither of us set off the metal detector - I'd worn my black pants rather than my jeans to make things easy. After searching my bag he let me take my nappies and a museli bar down to visiting. I wouldn't let Anura walk to visiting, but carried him instead - I wasn't going to cut into our hour.**

When we got there the guard made me go back and leave my bag in the entrance way. I could see everyone else hugging their prisoner, but I couldn't see Thomas. The guard told me that they would get him and I should sit down.

Visits at Rimutaka were in a prefab - bigger than the ones at school - but the same basic shape. In one corner was a small fenced in area - like it should have been for children to play in, but there were no toys.

Then Thomas was there in a bright orange Guantanamo bay jumpsuit and I was hugging him and he was OK. The next fifty minutes weren't how we'd normally talk, and not just because the guards would come over and tell him to put his feet on the floor. Although when Anura got bored (even a prison visit hour is a long time for a two year old) he came over and grabbed my face - just like he would have in any other conversation (although he's a better talker now so when I wasn't paying attention to him yesterday he just said "Stop Talking").

Prison visits are too short - they tell you it's over and you try and get one last hug, and say one last thing, and then another last hug, and then it really is over.

The prisoners were taken away and we were sent to the entrance way. They don't let you out of the visitors centre right away. While waiting in the I got a nappy from the bag they hadn't let me take in. Anura had needed changing for a while. I put my hand under his head as he lay down and changed his nappy just outside the door to the visitors centre - there was nowhere else.

Once they let us out we walked back to the gatehouse at two year old pace - he wouldn't be carried.

But in the end, my experience was as borrowed as the baby. When I was waiting to visit the following week,*** I noticed a woman who visited every day. Later she pointed me out to a friend - "She's with the terrorist" and glared at me. I don't know what her problem with me was, but I would think part of it is that I was so obviously there temporarily.

I saw people I knew when visiting, and I wasn't surprised to see them, although they were very surprised to see me. I don't belong to any of the groups whose existence is criminalised or for whom jail is a life hazard. I visited five times in four different prisons before I saw other pakeha visiting pakeha.

So I don't want to talk as if I know anything about having people you love in prison - because twenty-five days is nothing - people are on bail for months and are sentenced to years in prison. There are families and communities, poor and non-white families and communities, where people in prison isn't a horror or an aberration, but a fact of life.

I kept coming back to how much I had, when working to support people in prison. Most important was that there were heaps of us doing this together. I was in a good position for other reasons I had a car, I didn't have a job, I didn't have a child, English is my first language. While I love my friends who were arrested, their disappearance did not change the fabric of my life. I wasn't trying to live without their income, or what they did around the house.

Despite all this trying to support people in prison took everything I was able to give. Even prison visiting - which was the high point of my weeks - is work, doubly so if done with a two year old. The work of having people in prisons, and keeping families and communities functioning while they're away, is done by women. Female visitors outnumbered male visitors three or four to one. It was mothers, sisters, daughters, girlfriends and friends who were there, with or without kids, to do what needed to be done.

The week after I first visited Rimutaka, I visited Arohata - the women's prison. I'd gone to the prison half a dozen times already, to drop off books, letters, newspapers and visitors forms; I knew the prisons were different. At Arohata they weren't set up for supporters. At Rimutaka there were signs, forms and boxes for anything we might want to do. At Arohata they weren't as rigid, but after a week they wouldn't let us drop any more newspapers off, because they'd never seen this number of newspapers.

I got to Arohata half an hour early - just like I did at Rimutaka. When I rang the bell they told me that visiting didn't begin for half an hour and I'd have to wait outside. About ten minutes later another woman came, she was Maori and there to visit her mother. She'd come down from Palmerston North and we talked a little bit as we waited. I leaned against the fence, and she sat on the grass. She was pregnant, and needed to pee. I wanted to fight for her to get in and get a proper seat, but I'd already spent long enough in the prison system to know that it would just make me tired and get us nowhere.

Theoretically women prisoners on remand have much more visiting time than male prisoners on remand. Visiting time was in two hour blocks, rather than one hour blocks. All visiting time is cut into by the slowness of the prison system, but at the men's prisons they at least seemed to be expecting visitors. At the women's prisons they didn't even realise we were coming, until visiting time began.

As I said, from 12pm Monday 15 October to 4.01pm Thursday 8 November my happiest hours were spent prison visiting. While I was visiting I knew that they were really there, and that they were still them and fears that I couldn't even acknowledge dissipated.

But visiting at Arohata made me so sad, sad and angry, because the other female prisoners didn't seem to get visitors. The woman I'd waited on the grass with was the only other visitor the day I was there, and when other friends had visited the day before, none of the other remand prisoners at Arohata had got visits.

There are fewer remand prisoners at Arohata than there are at Rimutaka (18 vs 81 in the 2003 prison census).  There are only three women's prisons in the country, so women as far away as Gisborne would be held in Wellington. But even taking the numbers into account there were five times as many visitors over two days at Rimutaka, than two days at Arohata.

I don't think that I can extrapolate out total support from two days of visiting, but there's other evidence that implies this is a pattern. Three times as many women as men had custody of children immediately before they were locked up (35.5% vs. 12.1%). For men, almost 80% of the children were looked after by their partner or ex-partner. Whereas for women less than 25% of children were looked after by their partner or ex-partner (full figures here). Instead it's immediately family, larger whanau or CYFS.

Women do the work when men go to prison, and when women go to prison there isn't necessarily anyone to fill the gap.

I'm not pointing out anything new when I say this makes prisons a feminist issue. The invisible work women do is even further from the public eye when it is to serve an institution designed to hide and conceal.

There are different ways of knowing. I've believed in prison abolition for years, but I believed it different on Tuesday 16 October when I stood outside barbed wire fences and thought about people on the other side. And I knew that prisons were a feminist issue when I changed a nappy at the entranceway to a prison visitors centre.

* I have a car, and in a crisis situation I like nothing better than I really long to-do list, so I'd gotten myself approved first.

** That's the guard's job

*** A visit that never happened - but the way the corrections department at times seems deliberately set up to make your life worse is a topic for another post.