Abortion rights in New Zealand

Fighting to Choose: the abortion rights struggle in New Zealand by Alison McCullock, Victoria University Press, 2013

Book review by Daphna Whitmorefightingtochoose__73920.1355261486.1280.1280

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of  abortions are granted on mental health grounds,  in what can best be described as a liberal interpretation of outdated abortion laws.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.

International Women's Day March 1978
International Women’s Day March 1978

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.



  1. While protests against the CSA Act were organised nationally (mainly by the Socialist Action League-led Women’s National Abortion Action Campaign, supported by the more moderate Abortion Law Reform Association), the Sisters Overseas Service, which concentrating on flying women across the ditch for abortions, probably the main feminist response.

    Following the CSA Act the crisis in the women’s liberation movement, which had been brewing since the end of the postwar economic boom in 1973/4, came to a head. Some prominent left-feminists like Christine Dann called for a conference to assess how and why the response to the legislation had been relatively weak. This gathering, the National Women’s Liberation Congress at Piha in early 1978, failed to come to terms with the crisis. Instead it brought to the fore disagreements between lesbian separatists, radical feminists and socialist feminists, disagreements which became extremely nasty.

    The last United Women’s Convention, attended by several thousand women, degenerated into harassment and even violence. It too failed to come to terms with the defeat and why it had occurred and what needed to be done. After that particular UWC, no more such conferences were held – feminist gatherings had become ‘unsafe spaces’ for women and no-one was prepared to take on organising broad women’s rights gatherings any more.

    The Women’s National Abortion Action Campaign struggled on for a while, but the Socialist Action League’s turn to industry, and the shambles of the Piha and UWC gatherings, meant the SAL pulled out of the existing feminist movement, or what remained of it, and turned to trying to recruit working class women (and men) off the factory floor, while their work around women’s rights became geared towards the Working Women’s Council, established by Sonja Davies. The WWC’s Working Women’s Charter included a plank on the right to abortion, despite the opposition of a group of socially conservative women unionists led by Connie Purdue (a socially reactionary Catholic). Purdue’s group was called something like Feminists for Life (or Feminists Against Abortion). The Charter was adopted at workers’ meetings, including mass meetings of mainly male blue-collar workers where it was put forward, debated and the arguments for it won out.

    However, Davies’ perspective was really geared to the Federation of Labour bureaucracy and once the FOL adopted the Charter that was the end of it. It helped Davies’ career in the bureaucracy and she went on to be a Labour MP, and sat through the fourth Labour government’s attacks on working men and women.

    One of the problems was that there was no rank-and-file movement within the unions to actually campaign around the Charter (the charter itself was a fairly radical document), so the FOL leadership could just adopt it and bury it and buy off Sonja, who was certainly up for being bought off.

    So there was neither a labour movement nor a women’s liberation movement – nor a combination of both – to fight for abortion as a democratic right for women. I think ALRANZ continued to work away patiently and continued to lobby, but both Labour and National governments were unmoved by such lobbying.

    These days the ruling class has mainly liberal views on abortion and the power of the anti-women’s rights lobbies like SPUC has largely disintegrated. Successive governments just seem happy enough with the status quo, where the law is extremely reactionary but is interpreted by sympathetic doctors in the most liberal way possible, with the result that abortion is pretty widely available here now.

    One of the few MPs in recent years to make a fuss about the availability of abortion and argue for new, more restrictive legislation was Green Party MP (and Rastaman) Nandor Tanczos, Rastafarianism being quite socially reactionary.


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