I noticed something strange about Narelle Henson’s opinion piece in Stuff a few days ago. She seems to blame doctors more than patients, arguing abortion be decriminalised for patients, but criminal for doctors. Of course, if you criminalise abortion for doctors, it’s automatically inaccessible for patients, at least safely and legally. Even stranger, she portrays abortion as something that just happens to women without their input, like a virus or a mugging.
This is bizarre. Abortions happen because women actively seek them out when they do not wish to be pregnant. Abortions are not a injustice perpetrated on women, they are an option women have resorted to for thousands of years, when conditions are not favorable for bearing a child.
For Henson and other anti-choice activists to pretend otherwise infantilises women in a way that serves the anti-choice cause. It portrays women as acted upon rather than acting for themselves. It disappears the reality of women seeking to improve their lives by pursuing education, careers, and financial independence by controlling their own fertility. It justifies government forcing women to remain pregnant and labour against their will on the ground that women are incapable of making decisions for themselves.
It’s like they have never met a woman. And yet Henson is a woman. I can’t explain it.
Pretending women are passive and incapable allows them to pretend restricting abortion, whether through criminalisation or by making it inaccessible, will stop people having abortions. This flies in the face of long experience on planet Earth. Historically, women have risked everything to terminate pregnancies, and continue to do so in places where they are illegal.
Nothing will stop abortion. If force of law, and fear of the consequences of illegal abortion- prison, assault, injury, or death- cannot dissuade women, nothing can. There is no punishment the law can devise that compares to the harm and pain, both physical and psychological, of being unwillingly pregnant, and facing a huge life change you don’t want, even if you just don’t want it right now.
By calling for decriminalisation coupled with restricting access to abortion, anti-choice activists like Henson are demonstrating that they are okay with some women dying needlessly. This says a lot about their attitude towards women, even more than Henson’s calf analogy that seems cast women as livestock. It says a lot about their actual attitude towards actual life.
Kiwis are waking up to the fact that our abortion laws are ridiculous.
Labour, the Greens, and ACT have spoken up and called out the abortion bureaucracy for inefficiency, expense, and denying pregnant people’s right to make decisions about their own internal organs. National is still trying to pretend there is nothing to see here, that the Emperor is not buck naked.
Which is more appalling? The arrogance of the Prime Minister who thinks it’s OK to let his faith determine whether or not New Zealanders have a workable law to provide necessary health care, or the cowardice of his caucus who are desperately trying simultaneously to occupy mutually exclusive positions on the subject?
Mr English insists a 40 year old law that places the needs of patients last, prevents doctors from providing a proper standard of care, and mocks the rule of law itself, has “stood the test of time.” But the caucus claims to be pro-choice while supporting the same legal regime the prime minister supports. At least Mr English acknowledges his hostility to bodily autonomy.
The Prime Minister wins for daring us to call him out, but the caucus wins for lying to our faces.
The Emperor is naked. Kiwis are not going back to pretending otherwise.
In an article today, Amy Adams let fly a blatant, transparent porkie when she alleged New Zealand’s 40 year old abortion laws are working “broadly as intended”.
That whopper disappears much of the history around the Royal Commission that set out the framework for the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977. The legal regime it created was intended to make sure the law forced most women to carry most pregnancies most of the time whether they wanted to or not. People at the time disagreed with the Royal Commission. This is why activists were able to gather 320,000 signatures on a petition to repeal the CSA in 1977-78. The government of the day buried that petition.
Certifying consultants have forced the system to serve purposes it was not designed for. Years of certifying consultants who have taken a broad view of “mental harm” have turned system into something the Royal Commission would not have approved of.
It was a double cross. The Royal Commission screwed pregnant people, and screwed the popular feeling at the time. And certifying consultants screwed them right back. Certifying consultants kept their views unspoken (as the law required) while quietly granting 98% of requested abortions on mental health grounds.
Thus the system evolved to allow abortion in the most disempowering way possible. The decision would not be left with the woman, oh no, that would be terrible. The decision would belong to a rational, fair-minded professional (obviously assumed to be male) who would decide for her, without all that emotionalism that all women are naturally subject to, at least in the minds of the Royal Commission.
All human beings own their own bodies. All human beings have bodily autonomy and moral agency. The question, as with all fundamental rights, is not whether we all possess these rights, but whether our government recognises them. Our government currently does not do so with respect to women, pregnant people, and abortion.
News flash: 46% of Kiwis are WRONG. Stop the presses.
Family First commissioned a poll asking whether respondents agreed with the following incorrect statement: “Women who have abortions risk harming their mental health as a result of the abortion.”
The poll found 46% of Kiwis thought the statement was right, 33% knew it was wrong, and 22% realised they did not know.
The press release on Scoop included links to old, discredited research and a poll Family First commissioned in 2011.
You could probably find a percentage of the population who would agree with statements like “climate change is a hoax” or “the earth is flat”. Doesn’t make it so.
My story starts when I was twenty-one… or maybe that’s when it ended, depending on your point of view. I grew up extremely religious in the fundamentalist Christian church. Both my parents were preachers, and all their parents were preachers too. My mother was even a pro-life activist. You could say I come from a long line of extreme anti-abortionists. When I was sixteen I received a letter from my grandparents threatening to disown me if I were ever to be in a de-facto relationship.
So when I found myself pregnant halfway through my first year of tertiary it was literally a nightmare scenario. I became an atheist in my early teens and developed strong feminist politics before I even got to art school so I was long divorced from the ideals of my family, but that left me the lone black sheep in a large family of fanatical Christians. I didn’t even have any non-Christian friends until I was about fourteen and due to media restrictions in my childhood I knew very little pop culture – age fourteen was also when I found out who Michael Jackson was. Thus socializing was quite difficult for me and like many young adults, I threw myself into the party scene when I moved to another city to study. The sexual repression of my family only fuelled my drive to explore my own blossoming sexuality.
I considered myself a well-informed, sexually empowered young woman at the time, and frequently availed myself of the services provided by the drop-in family planning nurse at my campus. We received five boxes of condoms every time we saw her, so I had no excuse except drunkenness and youthful idiocy for not using one the night I got pregnant.
I remember going to that same nurse for the blood test to confirm what my dizziness, nausea, cramping and missed period had already told me. I didn’t cry when she told me the test was positive, or made arrangements for follow up. I didn’t cry when I walked back to my studio and blurted out the news to some of the older female students who were hanging around. I didn’t even cry at my first ultrasound appointment even though the technician made me feel terrible for wasting her time by not arriving with a full bladder (which no one had told me to do).
I did finally cry at the second appointment where they successfully found the heartbeat needed to book me for a termination. Understand the need for this process but it felt unusually cruel at the time – being forced to listen to the heartbeat of the child I didn’t want, even being offered a keepsake CD of the ultrasound. I had no one to go with me to that appointment. I held it together until I got to the bus stop to take myself home, then let myself sob like the infant I couldn’t possibly have.
There had never been any question of me keeping the baby. I had never wanted children, fearing my own Clinical Depression/Generalized Anxiety Disorder would be passed on – it had already begun to be wildly exacerbated by my pregnancy hormones. I also knew having a child out of wedlock would rock my family. I estimated that only my mother would have stood by me without question but she had disappeared the year before to save her failing mental health, escaping to India where I kept in contact by occasional email. At the time I felt burdening her with my pregnancy would threaten her mental condition so resolved to keep it from my family entirely.
The father was my flatmate who had since gotten into a relationship with my good friend. When I told him about my pregnancy and desire to terminate, he said very little. I was angry about his lack of reaction and eventually got him to reveal that he didn’t believe it was his at all and didn’t care either way. In the end the only people I had any support from were my best childhood friend and people I had studied with for just a handful of months.
It was one of these tenuous new study friendships that helped me the most – my closest female classmate offered to drive me to the hospital for my appointment. This was no small offer, for whatever reason this service wasn’t offered in our city so it required driving to a hospital an hour and half away. Without the help of my friend I would have had to figure out a complex bus scheme to make it to my 9am appointment. She even let me stay the night prior at her house so we could leave directly from her place. She stayed with me when I had to take a pill to soften the cervix first, and then wait in a grim room full of comfortable armchairs occupied by uncomfortable women. Some were young like me, others looked old enough to have had a few grown children. It was understood we were all there for the same thing, but none of us spoke to each other. It wasn’t a community any of us wanted to belong in.
The surgical process itself was quick and painless, with the most unpleasant part coming when antibiotic suppositories were administered with only the briefest of warnings. I remember the doctor confirming the estimated conception date, which I luridly imagined resulted from him counting limbs or some such.
Afterwards I was offered the option of keeping the remains, which I declined. I saw other women from the same group with brown paper bags, which are apparently the standard for concealing the containers. The social worker, who had briefly spoken with me at the beginning of my appointment to confirm my mental incapacity, kindly told me that the hospital would cremate my foetuses remains and bury them under some kowhai trees. This became a symbol of my pregnancy to me, and in my stray thoughts about might-have-beens I sometimes name my never-was baby Kowhai.
Even though it felt like a fait accompli from the minute I learned of my pregnancy, I still had a lot of hesitation and regret. This is never a decision that is made lightly, whatever pro-lifers accuse us of. I was not equipped financially, physically or mentally to carry any baby to term at that stage of my life and I truly believe I would have killed myself before the foetus ever became viable. Still, for many years after I found myself looking at children who matched the age of my not-baby. I even quit a babysitting job because the three-year-old girl was too close to the mental picture I had built up of my own imaginary child.
I told my mother a few years later. She expressed support and regret that she hadn’t been there for me – although she insists she would have raised a child for me, not quite understanding I couldn’t have ever survived that baby. She is still staunchly pro-life and has given me grief occasionally over my reproductive choices (IUDs are the same as abortions, in her view). I have told only one of my siblings, I’m still not sure how the others will react.
My expected due date was March 17th, Saint Patricks Day. All of my mothers grandparents were born in Ireland, so it would have been quite an apt birthday. I still don’t know whether to mark this date as special in any way – I don’t feel entitled to grief. A lot of people would consider me a murderer, I don’t know if I think so myself but I feel like this silent grief is my punishment. I’ve thought about getting a Kowhai tattoo to commemorate that little life, but it feels somehow selfish. Maybe one day I won’t feel this weird mixture of guilt and relief and will be able to openly claim my story. Writing this down is the first step.