Abortion law reform a win for women

by Daphna Whitmore

Abortion is no longer in the Crimes Act in New Zealand. The law reform passed yesterday and now abortion is a medical matter between a woman and her doctor.

Many women’s groups and progressive people have campaigned for reform for decades.

The women’s liberation movement and some of the far-left in the 1970s had mounted a fierce battle for abortion rights but the third Labour government was committed to maintaining rigid restrictions and began efforts to close the Auckland abortion clinic, with a police raid, repressive legislation and charges against the clinic’s director.

National under Muldoon carried on Labour’s work. Their Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act was behind the times when it became law in 1977. It made abortion illegal except where the woman faced serious danger to her life, physical or mental health.  This shut the Auckland clinic and an estimated 4,000 to 4,500 women had to fly to Australia for abortions during the next two years. Over time abortion services were, however, re-established in New Zealand and worked around the obstacles imposed by the legislation.  Over time, the legislation became more and more out of sync with public opinion and the law was widely flouted.

Few people today want abortion to be illegal or for women to have to pretend to be mentally ill to access the service. A Parliamentary Select Committee report, ‘Child Health’, published seven years ago, called for the Government 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 new legislation was a conscience vote and passed 68-51 for abortion to be taken out the Crimes Act and for no legal test if the pregnancy is under 20 weeks.

The majority of Labour MPs voted for the reform. National MPs voted 27 for and 15 against, showing it is not the socially conservative party of the 1970s. The most staunch defence of the law change came from National’s Amy Adams. She castigated religious authorities opposing the reform: “If religious leaders in our community want to do something about unwanted pregnancies, then perhaps they could stop teaching that contraception is a sin. That would go a long way towards advancing the views and the rights of women.” She observed that the MPs voting against the legislation were exercising their own views but “they are out of step with New Zealand. I think this House is in grave danger of becoming far more socially conservative than New Zealand”.

NZ First MP Tracy Martin voted for the change along with the one other female MP from her caucus, while the rest voted against. She is quoted as saying how tired she is of “men standing up and giving speeches saying, ‘I absolutely believe that women should have choice, I absolutely believe that women should be trusted – but.’ Everything before the ‘but’ is BS.”

It has taken over 40 years but the law has finally caught up with the changed attitudes in society.

This victory for women’s rights was very nearly stripped of its name when Green MP Jan Logie pushed for the word woman to be erased from the legislation. She wanted ‘woman’ to be replaced with ‘pregnant people’, to be ‘inclusive’ to transgender people. Young Labour and Family Planning also supported this call for the removal of the word woman. Two outstanding oral submissions to the Select Committee countered this absurd demand. The first was by historian Hera Cook and the second by Jan Rivers, an activist in Speak Up For Women.

Jan Rivers

Both pointed to sex being a fundamental material reality. Jan Rivers stated that “Every person who has ever been pregnant in the history of the world has been a woman and (barring any technological changes well into the future) all will continue to be women. It goes without saying that no men have been mothers either. The basis of this is science and millions of years of history.”

Hera Cook said removing the word woman would “obliterate women’s experiences as pregnant women”. She said: “It’s about things like pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. . . Is there discrimination against pregnant persons or is there discrimination against women who happen to be pregnant?” She pointed out that any laws that protect women would be negated if the class that is “women” cannot be defined. There were also many written submissions calling for the retention of the word ‘woman’.

Their lucid defence of the centrality of women in the abortion question saved the law from being a precedent for undermining women’s specific sex-based rights.

To all the people who have campaigned so hard to make this abortion reform happen for women, congratulations.