by Daphna Whitmore
Good on the Greens for putting abortion on the agenda. About time too. Their new policy to decriminalise abortion is a welcome relief. So far they are the only party in parliament saying it’s time to remove abortion from the Crimes Act. While the rest of the parliamentarians sit on their hands, there are growing calls for abortion to be decriminalised. Most recently, The Sunday StarTimes, 15 June 2014, had an editorial and two articles on the need to treat abortion as a health issue, not a crime.
National are sticking to the status quo where women are mostly granted abortions on “mental health” grounds. John Key says he thinks the law is “about right” as it is.
Nor will Labour be leading the way to promote better rights for women, they are leaving it as a “conscience issue”. In 2010 Labour MP Steve Chadwick tried to introduce a bill to decriminalise abortion but wasn’t supported by her party and it was dropped within a month. Labour has not had a history of being progressive on women’s rights. Norman Kirk was against abortion, as was David Lange, and Helen Clark in three terms as prime minister wouldn’t go near the issue.
Imagine if other forms of healthcare were decided on by parliamentarians in a conscience vote. Imagine too if you could only access that care by having it declared that you would suffer great mental harm if you didn’t get treatment. What if getting treatment without the mental illness label was a crime? Around 98–99 percent of abortions are on the grounds of “serious danger to the mental health of the woman“. Women have to navigate their way through an array of medical professionals and be classified as mentally not able to cope with a pregnancy before they have an abortion. This farcical charade is because the law denies the woman the right to make her choice independently.
The legal obstacle-course means abortions happen later than ideal. It is unnecessarily costly, involving medical specialists to certify abortions and is far from best medical practice. Abortions could and should be much simpler and more timely.
In many parts of the country there is poor access to services. If abortion was decriminalised clinics could provide services locally. For instance, if the law was changed women could have a relatively simple medical abortion by taking tablets to induce a miscarriage. This could be provided by a nearby GP or a Family Planning Clinic, as early as three weeks and up to 9 weeks of a pregnancy. Later abortions require surgical intervention.
Earlier abortions are safer, easier and recognised as best practice. Now that pregnancy tests are cheap and available in supermarkets women are finding out earlier that they are pregnant. The convoluted process of getting an abortion contributes to some 45 percent of abortions being done after the 10th week of the pregnancy.
Unintended pregnancies are a fact of life. Families in New Zealand today have, on average, two children. This means that women have decades of fertile years, and while contraception is readily available there is no method that is 100 percent effective. Abortion, like many other health services, is needed.
While there is the perception that unintended pregnancies are more common among youth the median age of women having an abortion is 25 years. In fact approximately three-quarters of high school students have never had sex. A comprehensive survey of 8500 students aged 14 to 18 from over 100 high schools in 2012 showed that fewer than 20 percent had had sex in the past three months, but only about half of those are using contraception. Among developed countries New Zealand has a high rate of teen pregnancies, second only to the United States. Decriminalising abortion would remove a barrier to teens accessing this service when they need it.
The time for the law to be modernised is long overdue. While the Greens are the exception in parliament right now, they are more in step with current thinking among the ruling circles. The capitalist class has pretty much left behind conservative moral codes. They favour contraception and want people to plan pregnancies. Contraception is now government-subsidised, and is supplied readily, including to people under 16 years of age – without parental consent. The ruling consensus could be seen in the Parliamentary Select Committee report on Child Health in November 2013 which stated the Government should 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”.
The anti-abortion lobby has never been so weak and isolated. When they do manage to organise a protest their numbers can be counted on one hand.
Society has moved on. As Don Franks noted “in terms of effecting social change, parliament is way down the track. MPs, fearing to offend conservative opinion, tend to legislate social change long after society has already moved.”
Now there is a real opportunity to push forward and bring the law out of the dark ages and into the 21st century.