Dominoes + Gravity

Dominoes + Gravity

by Terry Bellamak

 2020 has seen some action on the reproductive rights front. Like decriminalisation:

  • In March New Zealand decriminalised abortion and aligned it with other health care.
  • Argentina just passed a law decriminalising abortion up to 14 weeks. It is widely expected to embolden activists all over Latin America to persuade their countries to do the same.
  • In South Korea, a Constitutional Court ruling from 2019 held that the 1953 criminal code ban on abortion was unconstitutional, if the legislature failed to revise it by 31 Dec 2020, then the provisions that criminalise abortion would become null and void. They failed. So as of today abortion is legal in South Korea.

Every time a nation decriminalises abortion, it makes it easier for other nations to do the same. The norms around reproductive rights, women’s rights, and LGBTQI rights are changing, and every time a nation moves in the direction of greater freedom and equality it shifts the balance further. Bit by bit, the world becomes a fairer place.

There have been other international stories around abortion laws:

  • In Poland, the constitutional tribunal, after being stacked with supporters of the far-right PiS party, ruled that abortion was illegal in cases of fatal fetal abnormality. This ruling created a huge backlash from civil society, the scope of which surprised only the PiS party. The ruling has not come into effect.
  • In Malta, civil society is calling for an end to the farce of Maltese women travelling to other countries and paying top dollar for safe, routine health care, because their laws strictly prohibit abortion care.
  • In the USA, the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris has put the brakes on what many horrified onlookers thought would be a forced march to Gilead. The first change is expected to be the demise of the Hyde amendment, which bars the use of federal money to fund abortions through Medicaid, the medical provider of last resort for people in poverty.
  • The Covid-19 pandemic forced places like New Zealand, the UK and some American states to make telemedicine abortions widely available for the first time.

So 2020 hasn’t been all bad. Even so, we look forward to more progress in 2021.

Hopeful Times

Hopeful Times

by Terry Bellamak

2020 was not all bad.

This was the year New Zealand joined the 21st century and decriminalised abortion, making it more accessible and treating it as a part of health care. People who find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy will find it progressively easier to access the care they need as the Ministry of Health implements the new law.

Around the world views of abortion care are changing, sometimes amongst the people and sometimes amongst their leaders as well.

Poland’s government is still dealing with the massive blowback that ensued when their highest court attempted to tighten their retrograde abortion laws even further. The outrage has come not only from Poles, but from many other countries and NGOs, and it has been loud and long.

In Argentina, the new president has finally gotten around to proposing a law to make abortion care accessible there. The people of Argentina are ready.

Throughout Latin America, people are demanding change, throwing off the weight of cultural Catholicism and embracing equality for women and LGBTQI+ folks.

In the USA, though the Trump administration has managed to stack the highest court with rightwing hacks, the election of Biden has opened many options for improving access both nationally and internationally in spite of Trump’s toxic legacy. The first step will be to remove the Global Gag Rule as soon as possible, so that NGOs around the world can get back to providing the health care that people need.

Closer to home, soon all the Australian states will have liberalised abortion laws and safe areas as well.

And in Invercargill, when anti-choicers crashed the Santa Claus Parade, they had to do it underhand. The parade’s organisers apologised immediately because people complained. It no longer needs to be explained why advocating for forcing people to continue unwanted pregnancies is a bad thing.

History’s arc is long, but it really does bend toward justice. Treating women as a breed apart, uniquely obligated to sacrifice their bodies, interests, and free will to carry every pregnancy to term, is no longer considered acceptable by the vast majority of New Zealanders.

Around the world younger people are more likely to support equal rights in all forms, including reproductive rights, than their elders. A glance backward into history shows the trajectory of human rights and their increasing acceptance.

There is much reason to expect the future to be even brighter than the present.

Progressive is Normal for New Zealand

Progressive is Normal for New Zealand

by Terry Bellamak


This election was good news for supporters of reproductive rights. The results show that, unlike some places, New Zealand has no time for theocracy.

Parliamentary supporters of the Abortion Legislation Act (ALA) were re-elected in droves. Incumbents showed little inclination to downplay their support for reproductive rights.

Anti-abortion groups put together a not-very-widespread meme that listed those who voted ‘yes’ at third reading, intending it as a badge of shame. That may have backfired. Some probably used it as a handy list of whom to vote for.

On the other hand, those who voted against the ALA did not fare very well (unless they were Labour MPs). Of the 14 National MPs who lost their seats, 12 had spoken or voted (or both) against the ALA.

At worst, the ALA had no effect on the election. At best, supporting the ALA was an advantage in a country whose support for reproductive rights has consistently polled in the upper 60s.

This was bad news for religious ‘traditional family’ types, whose flagship party, the New Conservatives, received a drubbing. So did smaller parties with similar retrograde stances on reproductive rights, gender issues, and modern life in general.

The referenda brought more bad news for social conservatives. The End of Life Choice Act was soundly approved by 65% of voters. Voters shrugged off the ‘no’ campaign’s false claims of wholesale slaughter. The message that people should be able to choose whether or not to use assisted dying based on their own moral values seemed to resonate with voters.

Sadly, the cannabis referendum failed by a whisker – but the close result bodes well for the next time it comes up, which will doubtless be soon.

New Zealand’s socially progressive tendencies likely arise from its resolutely secular character. In 2018, census data showed almost half of New Zealanders, over 2.2 million, said they followed no religion. The next largest group was Anglicans, with a little over one tenth as many adherents as ‘none’.

The results of the election bear this out. New Zealand’s future is progressive.

Polish Authoritarians’ Miscalculation

Polish Authoritarians’ Miscalculation

by Terry Bellamak

A little over a week ago, Poland’s governing party reaped the rewards of its shameless stacking of Poland’s highest court with its political adherents. That court, Poland’s constitutional tribunal, ruled that abortions for fatal fetal abnormality were unconstitutional. This decision makes almost all abortions illegal.

Perhaps the ruling party and its fellow authoritarians in the Catholic church, which has exercised undue influence on Polish politics since the fall of the Soviet Union, expected the move would generate inward grumbling but little outward protest in these days of Covid-19. If so, it grossly miscalculated.

Since that day, Poland has experienced non-stop protests by massive crowds, composed mainly of young people. Opinion polls show 59% of the population disagrees with the constitutional court’s decision.

Protesters have stopped traffic, stormed churches, interrupted Catholic masses, and battled police in the streets. Many hold signs calling Poland “Women’s Hell.”

International condemnation has been swift. The Europeans Union, the United Nations and its CEDAW Committee, Amnesty International, and the Center for Reproductive Rights have all denounced the ruling as a violation of the human rights of women and people who can become pregnant.

People in Iceland, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Ukraine, Greece, and the UK have offered assistance and solidarity. And that’s just the ones that made the news that I happened to find on a cursory search. People everywhere feel for the people of Poland, especially those who live in countries like Malta, where the laws are even worse.

Even Poland’s first lady, Agata Kornhauser-Duda, while calling women who continued doomed pregnancies “heroines”, expressed discomfort with the ruling. “[S]he questioned whether every single woman was capable of such heroism and expressed doubts whether women must be forced into such heroism at all.”

She has a point. “Heroism” that arises from compulsion is not noble or heroic – it’s oppression.

The situation in Poland bodes ill for the United States, whose right-wing government has also stacked the nation’s highest court with ideologues capable of denying bodily autonomy to half the population.

ALRANZ Abortion Rights Aotearoa stands in solidarity with the people of Poland as they resist this attack on their human rights.

Understanding Family First New Zealand v Attorney-General

Understanding Family First New Zealand v Attorney-General

by Ella Shepherd

Since 2013, Family First New Zealand (one of the most prominent anti-choice lobby groups in the country) has been battling its deregisteration and loss of charity status with the Charities Board. On Thursday the Court of Appeal released its ruling. The Court held (Gilbert J dissenting) that Family First was a charity, and qualified for registration under the Act.

Family First said that it qualified to be a charity under two limbs: it advanced educational initiatives; and, provided other beneficial services to the community through promoting strong families. In addition, it had to show its other endeavours were all related to these two key purposes. 

Firstly, the Court was persuaded that Family First commissioned research reports that “largely resemble…that of a journal article in the relevant field”. This showed that Family First had a “clear purpose of stimulating a public debate…on important social issues relevant to families”. It therefore met the criteria for being a charity that advanced education. 

Secondly, the Court was bound by the recent Supreme Court decision in Re Greenpeace that held political advocacy groups were to be seen as promoting a public good, and could be eligible for charitable status. As the law has long recognised that stable families are in the public good, Family First qualified under this limb too. 

The final hurdle for Family First was to show that any other activities were merely ancillary to its charitable purpose. This refers to its political lobbying not directly linked to its family-focus, such as its opposition to the End of Life Choice Act. The Court held that Family First’s engagement on issues such as abortion, prostitution, censorship, and anti-smoking was part of its “broader purpose of supporting marriage and family as being foundational to a strong and enduring society”. Just because the activity was political, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t helping Family First’s main goal of family advocacy.

For these reasons, the Court decided it was eligible to be registered as a charity. What does this mean? 

Family First is once again a registered charity and is now tax exempt. This means it has more cash to put up billboards criticising independent choice on social issues. On the bright side, this decision further entrenches the Supreme Court’s position in Greenpeace that political lobbying can provide a public benefit.  This makes it easier for other truly beneficial political groups to become registered charities. 

Finally, the Court gave Family First a warning. Its activities were only in the public good because Family First said it promoted stable families. The Court said this would change if Family First was promoting traditional families instead. This might limit how Family First conducts its lobbying around stable, but non-traditional families, such as the right of same-sex couples to adopt children. Furthermore, advocating for positions that aren’t covered by promoting the public good of strong families (for example, cannabis reform) might be off-limits for Family First. The Court noted that Family First will need to bear that in mind in future. 

Ultimately, the majority opinion took a disappointingly shallow view on what Family First actually does. It ignored that Family First’s lobbying for the ‘public good’ often came at the expense of women, members of the rainbow community, and other minorities. By affirming that Family First operates in the public good the Court gives a veneer of undue credibility to Family First’s activities. 

Ella Shepherd studies law at the University of Auckland.

Who is Practicing Medicine?

Who is Practicing Medicine?

by Terry Bellamak

National MP Harete Hipango spent last week peddling the myth that because we reformed our abortion laws, people will get abortions right up until birth. It follows that she does not trust health practitioners or pregnant people. 

Those who followed the abortion debate last autumn will be aware that pregnancies that last 20 weeks are most likely wanted pregnancies, and that sometimes they must end because of a medical crisis. Those who paid attention will dismiss Hipango as an anti-choice extremist. But her lack of trust in health practitioners is not unique.

Parliament itself has shown it does not trust health practitioners to practice medicine without input from lawmakers, at least when it comes to reproductive health. If they did, they would leave them to it, like they do for other medical specialties.

This is not optimal. When lawmakers try to practice medicine, it never ends well. This is because lawmaking and medicine have fundamentally different alignments. 

Medicine is individual – doctors make decisions about the individual person in front of them, the patient, based on their unique circumstances. What is right for one person may not be right for another person, even in an identical situation. The job of a doctor is to serve both of those patients in the best way possible for them as individuals, even if it means treating them differently. 

Lawmaking is focused on aggregations of people, broad groups for whom they make rules. The rules are general and apply to everyone in the designated group. The law has a natural propensity to treat two people in similar circumstances the same, whether it is best for them or not.

This is why hard cases make bad law. The majority of people in a group may be served, or at least not harmed, by the rules affecting that group. But people at the edges may find the rules work against them in ways lawmakers did not intend.

For example, let’s say Parliament decided no abortions would be permitted after 20 weeks unless the pregnant person’s life was in danger. So if a foetus’s lung development was compromised such that it would asphyxiate shortly after birth, the parents would be required to give birth at the natural time and watch their baby die. 

For some parents, this would be their choice – a chance to meet their baby and hold it while it receives palliative care to ease its passing. But other parents would rather spare their child suffering by ending the pregnancy. For them, it would be a nightmare to carry their child to term knowing they would have to watch them smother to death. 

And just how close to death would the pregnant person need to be to allow abortion after 20 weeks? In Ireland, before the 8th amendment was repealed, abortion was allowed to save the mother’s life. But that did not save Savita Halappanavar – doctors did not understand or trust the law. So they let Savita die.

It turns out doctors are just as bad at practicing law as lawmakers are at practicing medicine.

Tempting as it might be for lawmakers to jump in and make medical decisions themselves by passing laws, the result is not good medical care. It forces a one-size-fits-all approach to decisions that should be tailored to the person or persons involved.