by Terry Bellamak
Last week I spent some time in the High Court in Wellington, observing the judicial review proceeding of the NZ Health Professionals’ Alliance v the Attorney-General. The NZHPA is a group of medical practitioners who object to abortion. They are seeking a declaration that the Abortion Legislation Act went too far in requiring them to tell people seeking abortion care what they could do to find out where to get it.
In listening to the arguments set out by the NZHPA’s QC I became aware of a double standard. The anti-abortion movement appears to hold the government and its treatment of anti-abortion health professionals to a higher standard than they hold themselves in their treatment of people outside clinics seeking abortion care.
The QC talked a lot about the importance of freedom of conscience. He talked about how the manifestation of conscience through one’s actions was inextricable from conscience itself, and how conscience must never be interfered with.
What about people seeking abortions? They are following their conscience, and their seeking abortion care is a manifestation of their values and principles. Why is it OK for anti-abortion picketers to try and override their sacred consciences? Why is it OK for them to try and change pregnant people’s behaviour, that outward manifestation of conscience?
The QC talked about how being forced to participate in the chain of causation that leads to an abortion, even to perform so remote an act as admitting the truth that a patient is legally entitled to seek abortion care, was improper coercion. He said even the ‘soft pressure’ of professional expectations was terrible because there is no such thing as proper pressure.
If health professionals’ rights are unconscionably infringed by any pressure at all, what exactly do you call what is happening outside abortion clinics, with the gory signs, judgmental stares, fetus dolls, and calling people murderers? The slightest professional responsibility or official disapproval is too much for health professionals to have to bear, but pregnant people are just supposed to roll with the pressure from a mob intent upon stopping them from getting health care?
At this point a QC would point out that this case was about balancing rights under the NZ Bill of Rights Act 1990, and the defendant was (and could only be) a representative of the state. It is right to hold the state to a higher standard than private citizens acting out their atavistic fantasies.
And it’s true – the state, an entity with a monopoly on the use of force, and a great deal of power beyond that, should be held to the highest possible standard of conduct.
But it’s a bit rich to see how low a standard of conduct anti-abortion protesters hold themselves to. In the full knowledge of how unwelcome their attentions are, they nevertheless do not scruple to make pregnant people unwilling participants in their street theatre. They are not protesting against abortion – they are trying to stop abortions, one at a time.
So let’s not have any more nonsense about anti-abortion groups occupying anything like a moral high ground.
by Terry Bellamak
So, I’ve been commenting on an abortion related post on Facebook. I know, I know.
It’s interesting how no matter what the original post is about, anti-abortion activists (calling them ‘antis’ from here on for brevity’s sake, no shade intended) always trot out the same non sequitur arguments, like abortion up to birth (not an actual thing) or ‘loving them both’ (also not really true). It’s like they’re all singing from the same media strategy.
But what’s got me fascinated today is how antis try so hard to frame abortion as something that is harmful to women.
Allow me to digress for a moment to acknowledge my trans and non-binary friends – who also sometimes need abortion care if they can get pregnant. I see you, and I stand with you. This article talks further about women specifically, for two reasons. First, I’m indirectly quoting the antis, and that’s the word they use. And second, my subject today is ‘women’ as a social construct, which includes trans women and anyone who presents as female, by the way, because prejudice against women applies to them.
Like so much of global abortion discourse, the trend to frame abortion, something women actively seek out, as harmful to them seems to have originated in the US. Antis there, however, have given up pretending to care about women’s welfare. The trend’s survival here seems to be a New Zealand thing.
And like so much anti discourse, the framing is false.
- As a medical procedure, both medical and surgical abortions are extremely safe. You are statistically more likely to have serious complications getting your wisdom teeth extracted.
- Abortion looks even safer when compared to childbirth – it is 14 times safer than carrying a pregnancy and giving birth.
Specifically, antis frame abortion as something that is forced on women. To be clear, coercion is terrible and wrong and no one should ever be coerced into doing anything with their body they don’t want (see what I did there?).
But coercion thrives in the shadows, and abortion requires the knowledge and participation of medical professionals. Here in New Zealand it is set out in the Standards for Abortion Services that a patient gets ample opportunity to speak with medical staff alone, away from her support people, so they can ask her about coercion.
Sadly, it is logistically much easier to coerce someone into remaining pregnant against their will by keeping them away from medical practitioners until it’s too late to receive abortion care, because Parliament doesn’t trust women enough to omit the time limits.
But the way the antis frame it, it’s not the abusive partner who is coercing the women, but the abortion provider.
This is all kinds of wrong – abortion providers have no interest or incentive to provide an abortion for someone who does not want one.
- Abortions in New Zealand are provided under the health system, so abortion providers have no financial incentive to provide abortion or not. Time not spent on abortion is spent delivering other kinds of health care.
- The Standards for Abortion Services allow for people to be conflicted, go home and think some more, and come back to the abortion service or enrol with a lead maternity carer if they change their mind.
- The implication that abortion providers have a stake in the outcome clearly shows the stateside origin of the frame. Although most abortion providers in the states are not-for-profit, so it’s a false attack on them too.
Why do they do it?
It allows them to pretend they are not anti-woman.
This is important when you are demanding that half the population be required to surrender control over their own bodies and gestate every pregnancy whether they like it or not.
It plays into patriarchal stereotypes about women, portraying them as foolish, childish, emotional, easily swayed, and unable to discern what is good for them, rather than rational beings with excellent reasons not to want to be pregnant. This further allows antis to pretend to defend the poor, victimised creatures.
It also plays into a gender essentialist ideology adhered to by some folks who try to pass themselves off as feminists. The argument goes, motherhood is women’s natural calling and any other inclination must be the result of brainwashing. The ersatz ‘feminist’ argument continues that this means women should have a higher position in society because producing the next generation makes them morally superior. That didn’t work out so well for the ‘angel in the house’ of the 19th century either.
And it relieves them of the necessity to attack women, which doesn’t go over as well as it used to. Slut-shaming and other forms of contempt have become less respectable in recent times.
If the antis accepted that abortion only exists because sometimes people really don’t want to be pregnant, then their ‘abortion = murder’ stance would require them to make women their prime targets along with abortion providers. Acknowledging women’s agency requires acknowledging their ‘complicity.’ In the states, attacking women in the past has caused the antis to lose support, leading to the change in rhetoric.
Treating women as though they are fools, however, actually is anti-woman. Their framing doesn’t fool anyone who recognises women as people.
It also doesn’t actually convince anyone – not even the antis who use it, to judge by some of the vile things they also say about women in various comment sections. Perhaps they need to circulate the media strategy more widely.
Once again, it’s almost time for the annual #40daysofharassment (AKA 40daysforlife). Safe areas did not make it into the abortion law reform legislation last year. So even though abortion is legal now, harassment of patients and providers continues.
Abortion providers work under stressful conditions, often harassed both outside and inside the hospital by both extreme religious busybodies and other workers who do not agree pregnant people should be able to make medical decisions. This season is a good time to remind them how much we appreciate them.
Once again, ALRANZ has started a Givealittle page to fund the gift of beautiful flowers for as many services as we can, starting with the ones that provided the most abortions in the past year. Check out the gorgeous pics from last year – thanks to your generous donations we got flowers for everybody! Let’s do that again!
Click here to contribute to our Givealittle page. And thank you for your support all year round!
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.
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.