The woman who has spent close to half a century working to secure safe, legal abortions for New Zealanders responds with sadness to the news from the US.
I remember the time in 1956 when, like many other women, I swallowed some toxic potion to induce a self-abortion because it was the least unsafe alternative. That year in New Zealand six less fortunate women died from a septic abortion.
I remember clearly the day in January 1973 when we heard the outcome of the Roe v Wade case in the United States. I was attending a student health conference in Canberra. Our keynote speaker was Dr Derek Llewellyn-Jones who had written a very popular 70s book called Everywoman. The audience erupted in applause when the announcement was made. How envious we were. In New Zealand at that time every district had an illegal abortionist and if they could afford it, women went to Australia.
I remember in May 1974 when the very first abortion clinic, the Auckland Medical Aid Centre, opened, offering a safe alternative to this barbaric practice. I remember in 1975 when the brave operating doctor Dr Jim Woolnough was put on trial and eventually found not guilty, after two High Court trials and an appeal. That led to a royal commission that was not helpful, but unfortunately was used as a basis for law change.
I remember in December 1977 when, after an all-night sitting of parliament, our new laws were passed and, like Marilyn Waring, my heart sank. Yes, we got rid of the back-street abortionists but we replaced them with a very complicated system for doctors. Abortion was still a crime and a staggering 98% were done on the grounds of mental health. This law was a victory for hypocrisy.
I remember on September 4, 2017 when, in a televised TV leaders debate, Jacinda Ardern told Bill English that abortion “shouldn’t be in the Crimes Act”. At last a ray of hope, which led, through the minister of justice Andrew Little and the Law Commission, to the passing of the Abortion Legislation Act in March 2020. This made abortion a health issue, which is exactly what it should be. Criminal grounds were discarded in favour of women being allowed, for the first time, to make a decision about their own body.
How dismayed then I was to hear that Roe v Wade has been overturned. Another day I will not forget. Why should I be concerned and what does it mean for us in New Zealand?
I am concerned because Roe v Wade was regarded as “settled law” and yet it could be overturned by a decision of six judges of the Supreme Court voting against the opinion of the majority of US citizens. Although thankfully we don’t have the same court system here. we must remain vigilant. I remember that 51 parliamentarians voted against the reforms of 2020, and 35 of them were National Party conservatives. That is why Simon O’Connor posted jubilation at the overturning of Roe v Wade and why it will remain an issue for the National Party, though fortunately this time quickly dealt with.
I am hopeful that making abortion a health issue rather than a criminal issue gives us some security. The arguments are compelling. Unsafe practices cost women’s lives. Enforced pregnancy against a woman’s will is not in the best interests of the woman or her child, either physically or mentally. What we should be concentrating on in 2022 is not what is happening in the US but how we are implementing the changes consequent upon the law change in 2020, in a health system already under stress. It is worth remembering that abortion is a very safe procedure and, to the credit of our abortion providers, there has been no death directly attributable to an abortion procedure since we started collecting accurate statistics in 1980. Abortion must remain safe.
In a feeling of solidarity with women everywhere, this attack on women’s rights is felt well beyond the US and it goes wider than women’s rights. If Justice Clarence Thomas is to be heeded, it could also lead to an erosion of the rights to contraception, same sex marriage and other rights for the LGBTQIA community. Sadly, as far as abortion is concerned, there has always been one law for the rich and the poor can suffer. This will most certainly apply to women in the US as each state develops its own laws, some permissive, some restrictive.
I am reassured that the change in the US is against the trend elsewhere in the world. The US is an outlier. It joins the ranks of Nicaragua and El Salvador. Most Western and European democracies with the exception of Poland have liberalised their laws in the past few decades. Even Ireland has moved against restrictions.
I am reassured that public opinion in New Zealand is in favour of a woman’s right to choose with access to safe abortion services. Opposition will remain and in a democratic society, opponents of abortion are free to express their opinions but not to the extent that it impinges on the freedoms of others, such as harassing women and staff outside abortion clinics. That is why New Zealand passed the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion (Safe Areas) Amendment Act in March 2022. The vote on this (108 to 12) was more decisive than the abortion vote in 2020 (68 to 51).
I am cautiously optimistic that we will not follow where the US is going – but we must remain vigilant. And now I must engage in a pro-life activity and go and plant some spring bulbs.