Fighting to Choose: the abortion rights struggle in New Zealand by Alison McCullock, Victoria University Press, 2013
Thousands of activists campaigned in the 1970s for abortion rights. A decade later the pro-choice movement had all but vanished. The battle over abortion is one of the longest-running struggles in New Zealand yet little has been written about it. Alison McCullock’s book sets the record straight. Not only does she give a detailed account of the protests in the 1970s, she makes a case for reinvigorating the movement.
She has just finished touring the country visiting small towns and big cities spreading the pro-choice message. Before delving into her book let’s take stock of abortion in New Zealand today.
You could be forgiven for thinking it is not an issue; after all, around 16,000 women access safe legal abortion services every year. Most of those women have no idea that abortion law is tangled up in the Crimes Act. They may assume the hoops they jump through to get an abortion are standard medical requirements.
What is also not well known is that services in New Zealand are not best practice. For instance, many women are having abortions later than they need to and in most cases a medical abortion (a medication-induced miscarriage) is not available because of legal obstacles. The majority of abortions are granted on mental health grounds, in what can best be described as a liberal interpretation of outdated abortion laws. It’s about making the best of a bad situation.
Ironically, while the pro-choice forces are diminished so too is the anti-abortion movement. The Family Planning Conference, held in Wellington this year had abortion rights as its focus. Two elderly anti-abortionists turned up to protest for a couple of hours then went home.
Given the sorry state of the anti-abortion lobby, now might just be the best opportunity in decades to really push for decriminalisation of abortion.
While none of the parliamentary parties have adopted a pro-choice position they are all in the business of running modern capitalism. Women today are needed in the workforce, not stuck in the kitchen barefoot and pregnant. A Parliamentary Select Committee report published November 2013 on Child Health has recommended the Government develop a plan to “have world-leading, evidence-based sexuality and reproductive health education, contraception, sterilization, termination and sexual health service, distributed to cover the whole country”. That’s right, abortion was included.
Currently around 40 percent of pregnancies in New Zealand are unplanned and an estimated 60 percent of pregnancies are outside of stable relationships.
Ruling ideology today has moved beyond the conservative family morals of the mid 20th century that were still in command when the abortion laws were enacted.The women’s liberation movement has pushed capitalism to change.
Contrast that to the situation Alison McCullock describes in 1974. The anti-abortion forces were formidable. They had money and institutional backing. Spuc (the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child) was energetic and extremely active. A majority of MPs supported Spuc and they had the full support of Labour Prime Minister, Norman Kirk. The following year National came to power with anti-abortion and moral conservative Rob Muldoon at its head and the battle-lines deepened.
The law on abortion was unclear and confusing. New Zealand’s first abortion clinic had opened. Public hospitals had quietly performed abortions prior to that but the establishment of a clinic set off the most intense period of political struggle over abortion. McCullock details innovative campaign tactics on both sides of the debate, and reveals the internal arguments that dogged both pro and anti abortionists.
In 1977 the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act became law. It made abortion illegal except where the pregnant woman faced serious danger to her life, physical or mental health. Pro-choice protests broke out across the country while anti-abortionists celebrated. Abortion clinics closed and women had to fly to Australia for abortions – an estimated 4,000 to 4,500 went over a two-year period.
Throughout the 1980s and 90s pro-choice activism dwindled and what McCullock describes as a defensive silence took hold.
Even today few politicians are willing to speak out in favour of abortion rights.
The Labour Party for the most part was as reactionary and anti-abortion as National. Norman Kirk, as well as being anti-abortion, was a moral conservative and vehemently opposed homosexual law reform. David Lange too opposed abortion. Helen Clark – Prime Minister for nine years – didn’t lift a finger for abortion rights despite being pro-choice. Even when she headed the Labour/Alliance coalition government in 2000, when there was a real opportunity to decriminalize abortion, it never happened.
McCullock rightly points out how gutless the parliamentarians were and still are.
When Labour MP Steve Chadwick proposed a private members’ bill in 2010 to decriminalise abortion the Labour Party stayed silent on the bill and it was dead in less than a month. The Greens made no public statement supporting the bill and the party’s spokesperson on women, Catherine Delahunty said that the Greens had not managed a consensus on the issue of abortion “although there is strong support for a woman’s right to choose. The party policy, however, focuses on reviewing abortion services – not the law”.
As a pro-choice activist McCullock grapples with how it was that the New Zealand Women’s Liberation Movement and its allies failed to win one of the movement’s principal demands – the freedom for women to control their own reproductive lives.
Even the most liberal interpretation of the outmoded law falls a long way short of that most basic right.
The 1977 CSA Act represented a watershed in terms of the end of the women’s liberation movement. The movement was thrown into crisis by that legislation and its inability to put up much of a fight, and disintegrated. There hasn’t been a women’s liberation movement since.