Two deeply religious men are standing for Labour in South Auckland. But Justin Latif reports that their views on the abortion law reforms are very different.
On a bitterly cold Friday morning, the Māngere electorate candidates’ debate heated up when the topic of abortion was raised. Following a question related to whether candidates supported the recent reforms, a number in the audience began jeering and directing “shame on you” cries at Aupito William Sio for his vote in favour of the Abortion Legislation Bill that passed in March.
His main rival for the Māngere electorate, current National Party list MP, Agnes Loheni, then accused the current government of turning its back on the suburb following the passage of a law that in her view undermined the community’s foundational values.
“The most churches of any [electorate] sit in this community,” she said.
“And therefore this community is founded on some very specific values; values of life, and the sanctity of life. And this current parliament does not care about this area, so we should be worried about our values being under attack, so choose wisely and vote with your values.”
Given Sio’s own background as a practicing Mormon, and someone raised in the Catholic church like Loheni, his support for the abortion legislation caused some surprise. He says the decision has brought him some heat, but it’s something he’s been prepared to withstand.
“I’m aware there is a political cost, but I believe the issue requires strong leadership for us to address it,” he says.
And it’s not just from opposition MPs that there’s a difference in opinion. Anae Dr Neru Leavasa used to be part of Sio’s own Labour Electorate Committee (LEC) in Māngere. He’s now standing as a list candidate and is Labour’s electorate candidate in Takanini.
He says he opposed changes to abortion law, and that prior to the bill passing, as a practicing doctor, he chose to refer patients seeking abortions to other doctors. “I come from a faith background, and so I won’t move on my moral convictions. In regards to the abortion legislation, I would have, from a faith background and a conservative view, have voted against it.”
But Sio says sometimes politicians must be prepared to take a lead on issues, particularly when they can see the wider harmful impacts. “In Samoa there are cultural practices that enable women to have abortions,” he says. “It’s done outside of the health framework, it destroys the life of the unborn child but it also puts the health of the woman at risk. This practice is kept in the shadows and not spoken of, but it happens.
“But I want to ensure that any pregnant mother who feels unsafe and isn’t getting the support they need from their partner or family should feel confident they can get guidance and counselling from a qualified professional in our public health system, rather than unqualified, unsafe individuals who operate in the shadows of our community.
“When you see the stats of [the number of] married women who have abortions, and you see young women abandon their newborn babies, you have to ask yourself what is going on is not right. I know there’s some problems in our communities, and in the role I have, I need to speak out about that and allow our communities to better to understand it.”
He says his thinking on the issue has been shaped in part by his Christian belief, but also by the evidence of how keeping abortion as a taboo subject is hurting many people in his Pacific community.
In 2016 a baby’s body was found in a reserve in Māngere, wrapped in a T-shirt with the words ‘Samoan Culture our pride and joy’. The mother was never identified, but Sio helped to organise a dignified burial for the child at the Māngere Lawn Cemetery. He was deeply affected by the situation and hopes by speaking up, churches and families can start talking about what to do in the event of an unwanted pregnancy.
“Why would any woman do this? She should have received support from the father and the family, but when somebody does this, they are obviously not getting help. But parliament is not the place to make moral judgement on issues. Parliament provides a framework, and I emphasise that families and churches must have those discussions, in a loving and protective way, about sexual relationships and about what is right and what is not right.”
And what’s his response to Christians attacking him on this issue?
“I’ve got some feedback that’s been really nasty. Some of these people call themselves Christians, but by the very nature of their actions and condemnation of women on this issue prove that they need to look at themselves first and foremost.”