In the latest episode of On the Rag, Alex Casey sits down with ALRANZ’s Terry Bellamak to bust some common myths about abortion.
Since 2015, Terry Bellamak has been the president of the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand (ALRANZ), a group that advocates for abortion law reform alongside further reproductive rights, including the right to visit a clinic without being harassed, the right to bodily autonomy, and the right to proper medical care.
Bellamak moved to New Zealand from the US in 2006, and has been using her legal and corporate nous to fight for our reproductive rights ever since. With the Abortion Legislation Bill currently open for public submissions until September 19, we sat down with Terry to bust some of the most commonly-held myths around the abortion process.
Here are the facts, in her own words.
MYTH ONE: Abortion in New Zealand is really easy to get
I wish that was true. Unfortunately, it really isn’t. Our abortion laws haven’t changed since 1977. You have to get the approval of two certifying consultants, and they can only provide that approval if you meet the grounds in the Crimes Act. That’s right: abortion is still in the Crimes Act. If an abortion provider were to provide an abortion outside the law, they could go to prison.
If you live rurally, and all the doctors in town are conscientious objectors, they can refuse you an abortion, and you have no recourse. If your doctor happens to be a conscientious objector, they can obstruct your access to health care. They can do it, because the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act says they can. They don’t even have to refer you to someone who will actually help you.
MYTH TWO: People use abortion as contraception
Anyone who believes that has clearly never accessed abortion care. One of the most common reasons for seeking abortion care is that your contraception failed. Until you find the right contraceptive method, it’s a lot of trying and seeing if it works, so, it’s very reasonable that at some point in that experimentation period, you might get an accident.
This is another reason that abortion care always has to be there as a backstop, because otherwise, you’re in a situation that you never wanted to be in. Really, the issue here is that it’s wrong to coerce people to do something with their body that they don’t want to do, namely carry a pregnancy.
MYTH THREE: Only irresponsible teenagers need abortion care
Actually, the majority of people who get abortions in New Zealand are already parents. It’s also not true that they don’t know what they’re missing – they know what they’re missing. In a lot of cases it’s people who feel that they just don’t have the resources, whether financial or personal, to deal with another child.
In terms of age, the greatest number of abortions are happening to people in their 20s and 30s. The last statistics were just released in June 2019, and I believe it was a little over 50% were people in their 20s. Less than 10% are in high school.
MYTH FOUR: Only women require abortion care
Pregnancy is something that anyone with a uterus is capable of experiencing. Trans men or anybody with a uterus can end up needing abortion care. There shouldn’t be any stigma attached to that. When we talk about abortion care and who seeks it, we try to be more inclusive, especially when we’re talking about something that’s physical, like pregnancy.
MYTH FIVE: Abortion causes pain to the foetus
With respect to the development of foetuses; they start out as a zygote, then implant in the uterus, and at that point the pregnancy starts. After implantation, it’s an embryo. It’s an embryo until the 11th week. Then in the 11th week, it becomes a foetus.
82% of abortions in New Zealand happen to embryos, not to foetuses at all. In general we just use the term foetus, just because it’s short and we don’t necessarily need to clarify. When it comes to pain, most medical authorities have said that a foetus grows the nervous system connections that are necessary in order to feel pain right around the 28th to 30th week.
Until then, there’s nothing to feel. There’s nothing with which to feel, because foetuses aren’t sentient.
MYTH SIX: Abortion causes long term health problems including infertility and cancer.
Those are myths. Infertility: nope. Abortion is extremely safe. Major complications in a very, very minuscule number of cases, and even fewer that would actually result in hospitalisation. If there were a case where someone was infertile after an abortion, it would probably be due to some underlying condition that predated the pregnancy, because that’s just not how things work down there.
With respect to breast cancer: nope. The American Medical Association, the American Cancer Society, the German Cancer Society, the Canadian Cancer Society, the Journal of the American Medical Association, Lancet; they’ve all had articles about how there’s absolutely no evidence that abortion leads to breast cancer.
MYTH SEVEN: At least New Zealand isn’t as bad as the States.
In comparison with the abortion laws in the United States, New Zealand’s are not at all progressive. In the States, you can decide for yourself; you don’t have to rock up to two certified consultants and lie to them in order to get care. Even places like Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana that have those crazy laws – they haven’t come into force yet, and they won’t unless Roe v Wade is overturned.
Basically, in the States access is fairly reasonable. There are places where it’s better and places where it’s worse. In terms of legal impediments, New Zealand beats them.
MYTH EIGHT: Nobody has ever been made to feel like a criminal for getting an abortion
Yeah, only outside the Auckland Medical Aid Centre every day. Only outside most abortion services during Lent. It’s completely ridiculous. That’s really the purpose of the protesters out there; their sociological purpose is to perpetuate abortion stigma.
MYTH NINE: People don’t want to talk about abortion
I think it’s not that people don’t want to talk about abortion. I think people don’t feel safe talking about abortion. Think about it, one in four people with uteruses in New Zealand will get an abortion between the ages of 15 and 45. Everybody knows someone who’s had an abortion. If you think you don’t know someone who’s received abortion care, you might want to think about why that is, because people only tell people they feel safe around.
Maybe you should think about if someone tells you something like this – that they’ve received abortion care in the past – maybe accept them. Maybe tell them it’s all right. Maybe treat them like a human being.
MYTH TEN: This is now in the politicians hands and I can’t do anything to change it
This is your moment. This is New Zealand’s moment to step up and let the select committee know what you want them to do, because the vote’s going to be a conscience vote.
You don’t really know how any given MP is going to approach a conscience vote. Some like to think, “what do my constituents want?” Others like to think, “no, this is just about me me me me me, and I will do as I see fit.” I think the thing that MPs should really understand is that they’re going to be wearing this vote forever. This is going to be one of those watershed votes that 10 years from now, 20 years from now, reporters are going to be bringing it up.
You can make a submission to the select committee. You can ask to make an oral submission, and deliver it in person. You can write to your MP – and all the rest of them too, because why not?
On the ALRANZ website, we have tools that make it easy to send emails to your favourite MP, or all of them if that’s how you roll. The most important thing is this: use your own words. Any kind of a cut-and-paste job gets disregarded. So give them all a piece of your mind.
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