The Aotearoa/New Zealand anti-abortion movement still doesn’t get it. In the United States, there’s at least some semblance of ersatz pluralism, despite the fact that their movement is overwhelmingly dominated by conservative Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants. There are self-labelled anti-abortion “agnostics and atheists”, pseudofeminists, LGBTQI+ gtroups, scientists, pagans, medical practitioners, ad nauseum. This adds some unconvincing garnishing to the US anti-abortion movement. Some anti-abortion Orthodox Jews and Muslims are also involved in both Britain and the United States.
But in Aotearoa/New Zealand? Their movement is oblivious to the need to look secular in the context of plummeting Christian religious observance. There is only one Maori figure, Hilary Kieft, in Taranaki and no Maori organisations listed in the anti-abortion March for Life’s list of endorsers, which seem to consist entirely of fundamentalist Protestants and conservative Catholics- Couples for Christ, Family Life International NZ, Family First, Right to Life New Zealand, Voice for Life New Zealand, Jesus for NZ, Promise Keepers, John Paul II Centre for Life, NZ Catholic Bishops Conference, (fundamentalist) NZ Christian Network, and the Executive Presbytery of the Assemblies of God. Notice something? Well, for starters, there are no mainline Protestants, no-one from other faith groups, no self-professed atheists or agnostics, no anti-abortion womens groups, and no medical or scientific organisations whatsoever. Proof, if anyone ever needed it, that the New Zealand/Aotearoa anti-abortion movement is almost wholly pakeha and conservative Christian. And they’re certainly not out there to win friends and influence people- Family First’s Bob McCoskrie dislikes progressive Christians, Voice for Life doesn’t even pretend to be politically nonpartisan anymore, and McCoskrie also thinks the anti-abortion movement needs more men.
We should be happy at this outcome. If they carry on this way, they will be unable to deal with either side of Aotearoa/New Zealand politics, with Labour and the Greens already uninclined to listen to them due to their blatant partisan bias and National and ACT trying to distance themselves from an unpopular extremist movement. The New Conservatives, One Party and Vision New Zealand might make occasional anti-abortion noises, but they’re more obsessed with the anti-vaccination movement than with other fringe opponents of reproductive freedom and LGBTQI issues.
Back in May, when the US Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v Jackson was leaked by persons unknown, the world thought such treachery was unprecedented in US history. It turns out we were wrong.
The Rev Bob Schenck, a former anti-abortion leader turned whistle-blower, disclosed to Chief Justice Roberts (and now to the New York Times) that in 2014 Justice Alito leaked the results of the Burwell v Hobby Lobby decision to Schenck’s agents, whom he called “stealth missionaries.” The leak gave Schenck and other conservative parties with an interest in the decision a head start on their public relations work.
This revelation throws unexpected light on the Dobbs leak. At the time, astute court watchers speculated radical conservatives on the court leaked the decision to lock in Chief Justice Roberts’s yes vote and to prevent his persuading other justices to water it down.
The justice with the most to gain by such a move was Justice Alito himself, who wrote the decision. Given his alleged form in this area, he now appears to be the prime suspect in the May leak.
Both the leak and the Dobbs decision itself have brought the US Supreme Court into unprecedented disrepute. It has reinforced the prevailing perception of the court as a haven for partisan right-wing hackery. Even the lower courts have joined in the criticism, as did Judge Robert CI McBurney of the Superior Court of Fulton County in Georgia, in a pithy footnote to his decision in Sistersong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective v State of Georgia:
Despite its frothy language disparaging the views espoused by previous Justices, the magic of Dobbs is not its special insight into historical “facts” or its monopoly on constitutional hermeneutics. It is simply numbers. More Justices today believe that the U.S. Constitution does not protect a woman’s right to choose what to do with her body than did in that same institution 50 years ago. This new majority has provided our nation with a revised (and controlling) interpretation of what the unchanged words of the U.S. Constitution really mean. And until that interpretation changes again, it is the law.
What can you do when an institution that has no effective oversight becomes politicised? And loses not only the appearance of impartiality, but the reality as well?
If Alito is the culprit, he might as well be on a mission to destroy the Roberts court, or even SCOTUS itself. He’s like an arsonist in a house made of straw.
Whomever you are and wherever you live in Aotearoa New Zealand, you have the right to end a pregnancy if you want or need to. One way to do so is through early medical abortion, which uses pills and allows for self-managed abortion at home. This option has been available via telehealth for some time but has become more common in recent years, especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A new service called DECIDE, launched in April by the Ministry of Health, is helping to expand existing telehealth services and close overall gaps in access to abortion care. DECIDE provides consultations and medications for early medical abortions, along with related services, including consultations, information, referrals, counselling, and after-care support. This service cannot replace in-person care, which will always be necessary in certain cases, but helps to enlarge access to safe and timely abortion. This is a great step forward for equitable sexual and reproductive healthcare.
There is a growing evidence base on telehealth abortion services, especially due to its increased of rollout across the globe due to COVID-19 restrictions. International research shows that telehealth abortion care is extremely safe and effective. Self-managed medical abortion conducted by telehealth is just as safe and effective as when the procedure is completed in person at a doctor’s office, clinic, or hospital. This option is not associated with higher risks of complications compared with pills accessed in-office. In fact, only 2% of medication abortions result in complications, and most of those are minor. Plus, most patients report being satisfied with their experience.
The research also suggests several advantages to telehealth abortion services, namely:
allow more privacy and autonomy (avoid harassment, conscientious objection, disclosing choice if unsafe)
help ensure timely care
greater flexibility reduces burdens of cost, travel, and time
reduce pregnancy-related deaths
Telehealth services are especially beneficial to those who may not otherwise be able to access abortion care. This may be due to low resources, disability, caregiving or work responsibilities, or geographical distances, especially if disclosing an unintended pregnancy is difficult or unsafe. Indeed, researchers report that barriers limiting abortion access most profoundly affect communities that already face health care and social inequities and can therefore widen existing socio-economic inequalities.
It is also important to note that access to early medical abortion through telehealth ensures timely care. While abortion is among the safest medical procedures, the earlier it is done, the fewer complications there could be. Reducing wait times for abortion, which has been a major problem in the past, can also help alleviate some of the stresses associated with unintended pregnancy.
The country is already seeing higher rates of earlier access to abortion and the final rollout of the DECIDE services will hopefully maintain this trend and contribute to more equitable access to sexual and reproductive healthcare for all.
In mid-September Pharmac decided to fully fund progesterone. The change is expected to increase access to hormone replacement therapy for symptoms of menopause.
Progesterone has another, more sinister unapproved use, as part of anti-choice movement’s dance of misogyny. They call it “abortion reversal,” and say it is for all those pregnant people who take the first pill, then suddenly change their mind (reinforcing the myth of female indecision and fickleness).
In 2012 Dr George Delgado, an anti-abortion doctor in California, released his study of six women who took progesterone after having taken mifipristone, to stop their medical abortions. According to Delgado, four of the six continued their pregnancies.
In 2019, researchers from the University of California at Davis tried to replicate Delgado’s findings in a randomised, controlled trial. Safety concerns, however, caused them to end the study after just 12 patients had been enrolled. Three of the enrolled patients experienced severe haemorrhage requiring hospital care.
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology says “abortion reversal” is not backed by science, and calls it “unproven and unethical.” The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada warns that it can cause serious complications for patients. The American Medical Association calls it “patently false” and “unproven.” No reputable medical association supports this unapproved use of progesterone.
In New Zealand, the Ministry of Health advises patients can change their minds about abortion right up until the abortion begins. At that point the abortion cannot be reversed. This advice accords with the advice of respected international medical bodies.
So why are we talking about this?
Because there may be anti-abortion doctors in Aotearoa who might be willing to gamble with their patients’ health by prescribing progesterone for this unapproved “abortion reversal.” Any doctor who behaves so recklessly should face sanctions from whatever medical body they belong to, be it the College of General Practitioners, the Royal Australia New Zealand College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, or the Medical Council of New Zealand.
Right now, after Pharmac’s announcement, would be the best time for these medical associations to spell out what sanctions would be taken against practitioners who are found to have prescribed progesterone for this purpose. Considering the risks, those sanctions should be serious.
ALRANZ Abortion Rights Aotearoa calls upon the College of General Practitioners, the Royal Australia New Zealand College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, or the Medical Council of New Zealand to denounce the unapproved use of progesterone for “abortion reversal” and to state the penalties they will impose on doctors who gamble with their patients’ health in this way.
Peggy was born and raised in Wellington. She trained as a nurse, went overseas to London and returned to New Zealand to continue nursing and married Tom Walsh. Peggy had two children and also raised a young relation Fran Walsh, who later partnered Peter Jackson. Peggy was the much travelled Nana to Billy and Katie Jackson.
She was an early feminist and activist protesting at the Vietnam War, nuclear testing, apartheid, homosexual law reform and fluoridation of water. She was assertive and independent. She joined the Wellington Branch of ALRANZ soon after it was formed in 1971. In the 1980s and 1990s she was a committee member of the Wellington Branch which morphed into the National Committee. For two decades she was the ALRANZ representative attending meetings of the National Council of Women. She was also a supporter of Family Planning.
Peggy had a vibrant, outgoing personality and related easily to people. For a time she shared the duties of ALRANZ contact person with her telephone number listed in the newspaper and was capable of handling all comers. She was also the ideal person to help escort patients to the Wellington Hospital abortion clinic when called upon, chatting easily to anxious young women. She was just at ease when lobbying parliamentarians.
One advantage of Peggy’s connection to Peter Jackson was that she had access to video recordings of major films sent to Peter as a member of the Film Academy. One memorable evening we had a private showing for ALRANZ members in my living room of “Vera Drake” the fictional abortionist portrayed superbly by UK film director Mike Leigh. This was in January 2005 before the film was screened publicly.
Peggy remained active in ALRANZ until 2009 when the deteriorating health of her husband Tom meant that his care became her priority. Meetings were sometimes held in her home on The Terrace and one of the pleasures was to admire Peggy’s collection of colourful Clarice Cliff pottery. Peggy loved to wear bright colours and her signature glasses were large, round and red. She also owned a bejewelled pair a gift from another colourful character, Australian friend Barry Humphries (Dame Edna).
Sadly in the last four years, her life was restricted by a stroke but what an amazing 92 years. She is remembered fondly for her generous contribution to ALRANZ.
The US Supreme Court has formally announced its decision in the case of Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization. This has overturned the 1973 case Roe v Wade, which enshrined access to abortion as a constitutional right in the US.
The threat to Roe has been the outcome of a strategy specific to US culture and legal structures. But this does not mean that other nations should feel secure in their current access to abortion. There are conservative religious organisations, politicians and activists who seek to constrain reproductive rights around the world.
The Roe case in 1973 provided a landmark ruling that the law against abortion in Texas, where the case originated, violated a constitutional right to privacy. The ruling applied to the whole country and therefore abortion in early pregnancy could not be banned in any state.
Almost immediately after the Roe case, campaigns were launched to try to reverse the decision. An important part of this was repeated attempts to change the constitution of the US to explicitly protect the foetus as a way to ban all abortions. These attempts are known as human life amendments. None of the attempts to get a human life amendment came close to succeeding.
A concerted campaign
The 1980s saw the rise of the religious right as a political force in the US. The religious right established law schools and legal training programmes with the express intention of reversing legal secularism and promoting a vision of law rooted in their understanding of Christian theology. By training Christian lawyers, they could challenge issues they objected to through the courts.
This decades-long strategy of seeking power and influence in the US political and legal system has culminated with the end of Roe. This leaves each state with the power to decide the extent abortion is permissible, including many which will severely reduce access or ban it completely.
More generally, critics have argued that the conservative Christian justices, who hold the balance of power at the Supreme Court, are undermining the historic separation between church and state in the US. This criticism has even been made by an associate justice of the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor.
While many people seemed shocked that Roe could fall, it is not a surprise to those who have been following the situation. This anti-abortion strategy is unlikely to be fully replicated elsewhere, as it was shaped specifically around the US structures of law, education and politics, but it is illuminating.
The history of abortion is complicated. In many parts of the world, abortion was not legally prohibited before the 19th century. Colonialism played a key role in spreading abortion bans, particularly the British Empire, which imposed British law against abortion on its colonies. The 20th century saw a push back against this, but there has not been uniform progress towards reproductive rights.
In Poland, the law was changed to allow abortion in the 1950s. Women travelled there from other countries to access abortion. This liberal position on abortion was reversed in the 1990s after the fall of the Berlin wall, and this is widely associated with the heavy influence of the Catholic Church.
In Britain, the 1967 Abortion Act, which outlines when abortion is permitted, remains in place. But there have been repeated attempts in parliament to restrict abortion, which started shortly after the Act was passed.
Although access to abortion in Britain has not been seriously threatened for decades, this is due to constant vigilance and campaigning by pro-choice activists. It is worth remembering that Northern Ireland, which was excluded from the 1967 Abortion Act, only saw the liberalisation of abortion law in 2019.
There are anti-abortion organisations, funders and political leaders around the world that seek to learn from each other in their overall mission to ban abortion. While the US religious right is a significant force in this, they are not the only major players.
Research by the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights found that European and Russian organisations were by far the biggest funders of “anti-gender” initiatives across Europe. “Gender” or “gender ideology” is the term that is used by the religious right to describe a range of issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Anti-gender organisations use a variety of legal, political and media strategies, depending on the situation in each country, to try to assert “traditional” family values, and prevent or reverse liberal and secular understandings of reproductive rights, marriage and family life.
The Catholic church plays a central role in the “anti-gender” position. In France and Slovakia, Catholic politicians with links to the Vatican founded or led both Christian political parties and NGOs that campaign against abortion. In the European Parliament in 2021, anti-abortion MEPs unsuccessfully tried to prevent a resolution that declared abortion as a human right and condemned countries where access is restricted.
Regardless of what happens in the US, reproductive rights in other nations have always been insecure. It is a constant battle to increase and maintain abortion access due to the power of those who are opposed. This will continue even without the influence of the US. The fall of Roe is a significant boost to the global anti-abortion movement. It will encourage this movement to pursue additional routes to power and influence in other nations and pan-national organisations.