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SocietyDecember 4, 2018

Four different perspectives on reproductive rights

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Photo: Getty

Ahead of Wednesday’s March for Reproductive Rights in Wellington, four people weigh in on why they’ll be supporting the march and what they hope to see from the national discussion around abortion rights.

ALRANZ supports Model A

by Terry Bellamak, national president of ALRANZ Abortion Rights Aotearoa

By now, most New Zealanders are familiar with the three options the Law Commission has presented to the Minister of Justice:

Model A: the pregnant person can consult a doctor for abortion care at any time
Model B: the pregnant person must get the legal approval of a doctor to receive abortion care
Model C: like Model A up to 22 weeks gestation, then like Model B

ALRANZ supports Model A. Most professional organisations, especially the ones that deal with abortion on a regular basis, agree with us. I’ll get to our reasons in a minute.

Many members of New Zealand’s political class prefer Model C. According to a recent article in the NZ Herald, it’s because MPs have ‘concerns’ about ‘abortions at a late stage of pregnancy’.

What are those concerns? Are they afraid the number of abortions at later gestations will increase? If so, there’s no evidence to support their fear that numbers would rise if there were no legal hoop to jump through. Canada has had no gestational limits on abortions for 30 years, and less than 1% of abortions there occur after 22 weeks, just like New Zealand.

Or are their concerns more like those of the Medical Association, which “believes there should still be a test for doctors to apply contained in health legislation.”

Why does the Medical Association believe women need the legal approval of an authority figure to decide on an abortion, more than they do to get married, take a job, emigrate to another country, or get divorced? Even though women in other countries have been deciding to receive abortion care without let or hindrance for yonks?

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The Justice Minister also prefers Model C, saying “given the likely viability of the foetus there are public policy considerations that come into it that I think a GP should be held to when they are giving advice.”

Parsing a politician’s utterances is sometimes dicey, but it looks like he’s saying women can’t be trusted not to request abortions later in pregnancy in situations where the doctor would be required to put a check on their wishes and deny their abortion in the interest of public policy. It implies women are likely to delay requesting abortions for reasons that are morally indefensible.

Why do these paternalistic myths about later gestations, and women’s intellectual and moral inferiority persist? It’s because our culture still carries old, false messages about how women are delicate, indecisive, child-like, and need to be governed in their own best interest.

Squeamishness about women making important decisions that primarily concern themselves, shows a complete lack of trust in women and pregnant people as fully autonomous human beings. It’s sexist.

ALRANZ likes Model A because we trust women and pregnant people to decide for themselves. No one, not even a doctor, MP or any other authority figure, understands a pregnant person’s circumstances better or has a right to require them to carry a pregnancy to term.

We trust women and pregnant people because we know them. They’re our sisters, our friends, ourselves. We understand that people seek abortions at later gestations because their wanted pregnancies went tragically wrong. We recognise the cultural narrative of a woman popping off to get an abortion on a whim at a late stage for morally indefensible reasons for the ridiculous lie it is.

This year New Zealand celebrated an anniversary: 125 years since it recognised women’s right to vote and the first country in the world to do so. Yet we’re openly discussing continuing to treat women and pregnant people like children when it comes to abortion. We’re better than this.

Model A recognises the reality that women and pregnant people are capable adults who have a right to make decisions about their own lives and bodies. ALRANZ supports Model A. If you agree, let your MP and your party know.

An Intersex Perspective on Reproductive Rights

by Kī Foster

It’s often assumed that intersex and transgender people have no reason to be invested in reproductive rights. This couldn’t be more false. Some of us, like me, are able to conceive but don’t want to. Lack of access to abortion is compounded by lack of access to affordable, accessible endocrinology and gynaecology which understands our specific hormonal and physiological needs. The last birth control I was prescribed messed up my hormones dangerously in a way my doctor couldn’t explain. We still haven’t found a replacement.

Some of us worry about losing our fertility. For intersex people, sometimes functioning gonads are removed without our consent or awareness when we’re infants. Any ambiguity or inconsistency in our genitals or reproductive organs is manipulated to fit a standard heterosexual model, based on a guess of what gender we might turn out to be. By the time we know what we’ve lost, it’s too late. For many trans people, the road to hormones or affirmative surgery doesn’t involve enough information about how our options may affect our future fertility.

Instead, we often face scaremongering from anti-trans lobbyists, medical professionals and our families alike about us throwing our fertility away, when our access to life-saving care should be their first priority.

The main barriers to better trans and intersex reproductive outcomes come from a lack of choice and knowledge. Socially, the hoops we have to jump through to be recognised as who we are can force us to make changes that we may not be fully comfortable with. Medically, the professionals who are meant to be guiding and treating us often fly blind. They sometimes know less than we do. We have no choice but to leave immensely personal care in the hands of people who may not even know how to be respectful or sensitive.

A teenage trans girl shouldn’t feel she has to let several people handle her testicles while talking about “him” and “the young male” in order to gain access to hormone blockers. If I wasn’t a sex worker with access to NZPC’s sexual health clinic, I probably wouldn’t have caught the genital pre-cancer I had at 21 in time, because GPs tend to be too curious for me to willingly get into stirrups for them.

This isn’t good enough, and we need to say so. We need to call for better practitioner education on intersex conditions and issues. We need to keep our DHBs up to date with international best practice on transgender treatment. We need to support the proposed amendments to the Births, Deaths, Marriages and Relationships Registration Act which remove mentions of “physical conformation”, “sexual reassignment” or “medical evidence” from the process of changing legal sex. We need to fund sexual health clinics with compassionate, trauma and gender-educated staff so that they don’t have to send away people who might not be able to receive that care anywhere else.

We need to support trans men who make the choice to bear children, and affirm trans women by making it clear that the presence of a functional uterus isn’t proof of womanhood, nor required to be a woman.

We still fight for reproductive rights because of misogyny. If anything, this makes it even more important to consider trans and intersex voices in this struggle. Women’s health and wellbeing is neglected under the same system which silences and erases intersex and trans people. None of us are biologically impossible, inferior or incomplete. None of us deserve anything short of a happy, healthy sex and family life free from coercion, medical or otherwise.

This push for reproductive rights calls for the informed consent model to be adopted for everyone. We all deserve to know what is and could be happening to our bodies. We all deserve to be able to decide what we want to do with that knowledge.

We’ve put up with the current state of affairs for an embarrassingly long time. Now it’s time for us to step forward, together, into a brighter future.

From reproductive rights to reproductive justice

by Sue Bradford, beneficiaries’ rights activist and former Green MP

With the possibility of major abortion law reform on the close horizon for the first time in forty years, this is a useful moment to consider reproductive choice in a broader way than has been usual in New Zealand debates on these issues.

As a mother of five who spent some years on the DPB after my first two babies were born, and as a longterm activist in unemployed workers’ and beneficiaries’ organisations, I’ve been acutely conscious of ways in which the state —through laws, policies and practices — interfere with the choice to have children, as much as it does with the choice of whether or not to proceed with a pregnancy.

In recent years there have been two gross examples of this.  One is the clause in the Social Security Act which deducts $22 to $28 a week from beneficiary sole parents who have not identified their child’s father, almost always for the most sensitive of reasons.  In some families this applies to more than one child. While this may not seem like a lot of money to people on high incomes, for those who are struggling to provide even the basics of life, every dollar counts. A disproportionately high number of those affected are Māori.

Handmaid’s protestors outside Parliament. Photo: Emily Writes.

I was a Green MP when Labour extended the penalties against this group of beneficiaries in 2004.  As I asked in Parliament then ‘Would all those people who support this … also support the state advising mothers to have abortions if they are not willing, or able, to name the father of their child?’ That seemed to me then, as it does now, the logical extension of this policy.

Things got even worse when National brought in new guidelines on the back of the Welfare Working Group report in 2011, in which Work and Income was to encourage women on benefits, and their daughters of reproductive age, to use long-acting (five year) contraceptive implants.

Fortunately, Labour has recently rescinded this instruction, but the stain remains as a reminder that even in this country we have governments who don’t shy away from openly eugenic policies when it comes to reproductive choice by people deemed as less worthy than others.

Behind policies and practices like these stands a long history of political parties who deliberately vilify beneficiaries in a bid for votes.  One of the strongest strands of this vilification is the underlying assumption that if you’re poor, single, brown, unemployed, or on a benefit for reasons like impairment, you shouldn’t even consider bringing a child into the world – that somehow it’s morally better not to have that child.  

To me, this is just as reprehensible as the belief that people should be denied access to safe birth control and abortion. Each and every baby we have should be valued in their own right. Every mother and parent should be supported and respected for the huge job they take on in bearing and raising children, including the choice they may make to have a baby rather than prevent its birth.

One of the worst impacts of all this is the internalisation of societal finger pointing and shame by people who face a choice about whether to keep a baby or not.  Carrying the load of victim blaming internally – or being the recipient of partner violence and abuse in regards to reproduction – are two of the ugliest ways in which people are affected by wider societal and political views on how much reproductive choice the most dispossessed and vulnerable really have.

There are many more aspects to this discussion, but the starting point is that when we talk about reproductive choice, we also need to consider reproductive justice.

Photo: Getty

Decriminalisation and removing stigma

By Dame Catherine Healy, sex workers’ rights activist

In Aotearoa, we have come some way towards improving the legislative response to sex workers. We’ve created a rights-based framework which has enabled sex workers to have more control over what we choose to do in the context of our work.

The process of decriminalisation involved heated debates, often with those who were least affected, if at all, by the day-to-day experience of living and working as a sex worker in a criminalised context. It is apparent the same forces are at work in discussions around sexual and reproductive health rights. I believe that opponents of abortion are very often far removed from the reality of people who most need access to abortion.

These opponents fuel the stigma against abortion, just as opponents of sex worker rights do. Stigma causes harm because it creates situations where people are unable to seek help. Sex workers are quick to sense negative attitudes towards them. Sometimes we’re made to feel ashamed of our choices, and our confidence is undermined.

As with sex work, there should be no stigma about abortion for any reason.

The current law supports a hierarchy in the abortion debate, whereby it’s necessary for people to cite “serious danger to mental or physical health,” to have an abortion.  There are reasons for having an abortion that may have reduced stigma, such as being a rape survivor. There are likewise more “acceptable” ways of being a sex worker – street-based sex work has significantly more stigma than indoor sex work.

These hierarchies are damaging because it makes some people and their choices less acceptable than others. But everyone should be equally supported.

I needed an abortion as a much younger woman in the 1970s. I had to fly to Sydney. I have no regrets. It wasn’t traumatic. As Jackie Edmond, CEO of Family Planning says, “There’ll always be unplanned pregnancies. There’s contraceptive failure and the human factor. We don’t always make the right decisions at the right times. That’s just what being human is.”

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