This week, the New Zealand Media Council partially upheld a complaint against the NZ Herald. The complaint related to an opinion piece by an anti-abortion activist. In it, the author made several dodgy claims, easily rubbished by rudimentary application of Google, which the NZ Herald let stand unchallenged. Sadly, the Media Council did not uphold that part of the complaint.
The Media Council’s lack of concern about the accuracy of statements that perpetuate long-debunked abortion myths, but may sound plausible to non-experts, should concern everyone interested in the abortion law reform debate.
People should be informed, objectively and impartially. But who will take that on? In the States, where the mainstream media is losing money hand over fist, media outlets routinely ‘report the controversy’ by allowing both sides equal time to make their case and challenge the other’s. There may be some issues for which this approach works, but for anything involving actual facts, like evolution and creationism, or pro- and anti-abortion, it leaves out the most important piece – facts.
That is lazy journalism on the cheap.
It is said everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts. By allowing dodgy data to stand unchallenged, media outlets give up and allow public debate to be derailed by falsehoods.
This creates a false equivalence between the arguments on different sides of a question. If one side has good, peer-reviewed research backing its claims, and the other has biased, misleading research, then their arguments are not equivalent. How many readers will take the next step of Googling the data to discover which is which?
They should not have to. It is a journalist’s job to check verifiable statements for accuracy.
Some media outlets do a great job of this important function. The Irish Times did its country a huge service during the abortion referendum when they decided to fact check the claims made by both sides. In a series of articles, the Times took a recent claim made by the Yes or the No side and examined whether its assertions and implications stacked up with reality. Best of all, they showed their work, so readers could see how they came to their conclusions.
They found many of the No side’s claims were partly or mostly untrue. Very few of the Yes side’s claims were found to be inaccurate.
We hope some media outlet in New Zealand will step up like the Irish Times did, and fact check claims made by both pro- and anti-abortion activists. We welcome such scrutiny.
A Pro-Choice Rebuttal and Response Guide
by Craig Young
For ALRANZ members and other pro-choicers, here’s a handy quick guide to deconstructing anti-abortion propaganda.
(1) Anti-abortionists never use the correct medical terms for prenatal stages of development such as blastocyst, zygote, embryo or fetus. Instead, they use the deceptive and meaningless term “unborn child.” This term is intended to tap emotional resonances that we attach to our already born children and transfer them to prenatal stages of development within a pregnant person’s body.
(2) Anti-abortionists almost never use photographs of early prenatal stages of human development in anti-abortion propaganda. The earlier that it is, the less the embryo/fetus has an identifiable humanoid outline (and the more likely an abortion is to have occurred, according to clinical and statistical data). If they do, it’s based on the faulty and scientifically inaccurate argument that there are immaculate “stages” of prenatal development that “always” occur. This is an erroneous argument.
(3) They always emphasise some stages of prenatal development relative to others. “Life” does not “begin” at fertilisation- instead, as many as two thirds of blastocysts and zygotes fail to implant on a woman’s uterine wall and are flushed out at a woman’s next period. Ever wondered why anti-abortionists stopped campaigning against emergency contraception? Because given the microscopic nature of the blastocyst and zygote, and its appearance, they can’t win that argument.
(4) Later in fetal development, the anti-abortionists obsessively focus on the fetal heartbeat, which begins at about eight weeks of fetal development. That’s one stage, but there are others that pro-choicers can use instead. One is the development of alveolar respiratory development within the lungs, which develops late within the pregnancy, at about twenty-five weeks, long after most terminations are performed. Without this essential organ development, any fetus born beforehand will find it difficult to survive outside a pregnant person’s body. Anti-abortionists will protest that “advances” in premature infant preservation technology “invalidate” this observation. Ask them for proof and call their bluff when it comes to rates of survival and whether such infants survive for long after initial surgical intervention.
(5) Anti-abortionists used to emphasise “fetal pain” within their propaganda. Back in 1984, they were using a propaganda video called The Silent Scream. I then located pro-choice material from the United States, specifically a contemporary statement against this propaganda from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which noted that the necessary fetal neurohormonal development necessary for it to “feel pain” is not in place until the fortieth week of pregnancy- long, long after most abortions have occurred. Members of the UK Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists made similar observations.
(6) It is commonplace for anti-abortionists to use staged photographs of prenatal development which omit any photographs of women from their visual and verbal debate. Remedy this the way that Ireland’s Repeal movement did recently- through bringing women’s personal stories about pregnancy, abortion and childbirth back into the narrative.
(7) The ubiquitous outline of the fetus is used in anti-abortion propaganda, sometimes deceptively. When it comes to fetal abnormality, such photographs are not used. Instead, they try to use the ‘disability cleansing’ argument- despite the fact that with lethal fetal abnormalities, there is little chance that any resultant premature infant born as a result will survive from such anomalies. Moreover, many such late term terminations may be necessary for women’s lives and health. While these are comparatively rare, unfortunately the diagnostic techniques used to establish them cannot be used until late within the pregnancy.
(8) The ‘parental notification and consent’ argument can be dealt with by bringing up the question of incest and child battery in this context. Ask the anti-abortionists why they want to put a child through such trauma and psychological torment. The US National Abortion Rights Action League has useful fact sheets on this which you can use, as does ALRANZ.
(9) Two can play at that game. While abortion is a safe medical procedure, it may be worthwhile to point out health risks from pregnancy, particularly repeat pregnancies, and childbirth.
(10) Ask the anti-abortionists to cite their sources. If the sources turn out to be members of the breakaway anti-abortion US “American College of Pro-Life Obsetricians and Gynecologists”, “American College of Pediatrics”, “Doctors Who Respect Human Life” or any other such anti-abortion front group, go directly to these groups webpages and see whether these ‘medical sources’ are anti-abortion activists.
(11) Another point about anti-abortion sources- have they been cited in proper peer-reviewed medical journals? Do they reflect mainstream medical organisation evidence-based research or are they outliers? Even if they have been published in medical journals, check out the comments page, because this is useful in locating either anti-abortion fellow travellers or rebuttals from mainstream medical practitioners. Cite the rebuttals in any response.
(12) Also be aware if anti-abortionists cite any medical practitioner or scientific source from outside relevant disciplines. What may be standard professional practice within their disciplines may not be applicable outside it.
(13) One tool that can be used against them is any overt religious comments. On the one hand, they’re entitled to their specific religious viewpoints, but they should acknowledge that is what they are and identify them properly. Also note that there are pro-choice Christian denominations and perspectives from other faiths available in this context. There are even dissident Catholics- the much-loved Catholics for Choice, in the United States. Use the Catholics For Choice website against conservative Catholics. The US Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice can be used for other pro-choice religious discourse against other anti-abortion sources.
(14) Also ask that given New Zealand is now a predominantly secular nation, why should specific sectarian religious anti-abortion positions that do not have scientific or medical corroboration be imposed on those who do not share them, whether nonreligious or people of pro-choice religious beliefs? This philosophical argument relies on religious freedom, which is protected within the NZ Bill of Rights Act 1990.
(15) Know your opponent. Monitor their websites, track their arguments to their sources and see whether mainstream medical practitioners or scientists have published online rebuttals of those arguments. Cite those in your responses. Always question their assertions and ask what their scientific and medical basis in fact is. Except, it’s usually not.
This is big.
When it comes to reproductive rights, Ireland was the big bad. It was one of the last bastions of medieval Catholic cultural hegemony left in Europe.
Now the bastion has fallen to forces of equality, of modernity. Not for nothing did Martin Luther King Jr famously say the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
Ireland was the place of Magdalene laundries, mother and baby homes, no divorce, no contraception, and clerical sexual abuse with impunity. That terrible legacy is gone now. Soon Irish women will be able to get abortion care in their home country.
All these changes have come within a single lifespan. It boggles.
Most of these changes came earlier to New Zealand. But abortion was the exception to New Zealand’s vaunted progressivism. Our legal regime is older than Ireland’s. It’s less Draconian, but almost as hypocritical.
New Zealand went from illegal abortion, to a single maverick clinic in the early 1970s, to the unwelcome and retrograde legal regime imposed in 1977, to the surreptitiously permissive application of that law while successive governments looked the other way for 40 years.
Now we seem to have a government willing to address the issue of abortion law reform and to bring our country’s laws into the 21c.
Good intentions count for a lot, because they get things started. But between intention and completion lies a lot of ground for political manoeuvring. To get the kind of law reform that puts an end to discrimination against women and pregnant people, that acknowledges our right to bodily autonomy, we must keep pressure on our elected representatives.
Today we celebrate for Ireland. But we dare not be complacent for New Zealand.
by Terry Bellamak
When considering people requesting abortion care, I have always thought that, even as the women knew they were lying to the certifying consultants, the certifying consultants also knew they were lying and helpfully pretended to believe them. But that might not actually be the case.
I was at the Royal Australia and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists Conference in Nelson, presenting a talk on abortion law.
At one point I referred to the unexceptionable fact that women have told me how they had to lie to certifying consultants to get abortion care.
This was met with incredulity by some certifying consultants, who could not believe their patients were lying to them, even in face of the patients’ obvious motivation to do so, and the statistical unlikelihood of 98% of pregnant people who need abortions suffering from mental illness in the usual sense of the term.
Self-delusion or doublethink?
The result of this disconnect is an interaction that looks one way from the perspective of the certifying consultant, and completely different from the perspective of the person who needs an abortion.
Certifying consultants approach their task with certain definitions in mind, like the WHO standard for mental health, which is:
Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.
They ask the patient questions, prompting responses aimed at assessing the validity of her reasons for needing abortion care. A certifying consultant’s sole reason for being is to decide whether the patient meets the legal grounds under the Crimes Act. Once the patient has said enough to satisfy that standard, the certifying consultant can approve the abortion with a clear conscience, knowing the law has been satisfied, the patient has been satisfied (she gets her abortion), all the boxes are ticked, and they have done their job in accordance with the abortion bureaucracy.
From the perspective of a person who needs an abortion, however, she has to lie. She does not know the details of the standard the certifying consultant is using. She knows what mental illness is, and she knows she is not mentally ill. The certifying consultant asks her leading questions that hint at what the certifying consultant wants to hear. She says what they want to hear, and gets her abortion.
Sometimes, a patient struggles with the lies she has to tell, and tries to say, no, I made this decision because it is the best decision for my life right now, not because I am mentally ill. But under the sensitive, prompting questions of the certifying consultant, she caves in, as she must. And it feels like a betrayal of herself.
She believes the certifying consultant is trying to help her get the abortion she needs in the only way it can be done here in New Zealand. That’s sort of true: the certifying consultants is trying to get to the place where they can say, yes, she meets the grounds. Both respect the law, and struggle mightily to satisfy its demands.
The law itself is not respectable. It demands women sacrifice a tiny sliver of their integrity to get the health care they need. They do it willingly. They would do much more, as history shows. The alternative is childbirth.
The certifying consultants have made a sacrifice too, but I don’t think some of them realise it. They have unwittingly done their patients harm by forcing them to testify falsely against themselves.
by Terry Bellamak
“40 Days for Life” is the time of year when anti-abortion folks try to make life harder for people who need abortion care, and for people who provide it. This usually takes the form of increased harassment of people entering and leaving abortion services, be they clients or medical staff.
Most years, ALRANZ counters the negativity as best it can. This year, ALRANZ has received even more support than we have in previous years, both from our supporters, and from the greater community.
Like last year, ALRANZ marked the occasion by taking up the #40daysfortruth project. This is the project where we post and tweet actual facts about abortion in New Zealand and around the world, with citations, to counter the falsehoods often bandied about by anti-abortion folks.
This year, we have had lots more community engagement with these posts. They have started conversations in many quarters, and we are delighted about that.
Last year, as in previous years, ALRANZ set up a funding page to give treats to some of the larger providers of abortion care in the main centres. We sent them flowers, and sometimes chocolates and other treats to thank them for the excellent care they provide their patients, in the face of so much bogus criticism.
This year, our funding page got such a huge response, with over $1000 donated, that we were able to send flowers, or flowers and treats, to every abortion service in New Zealand that we knew about. We are very grateful to our supporters, who gave generously, and even volunteered to deliver the treats to some of the 19 services. The professionals who provide abortion care are unjustly vilified in some quarters, so it was wonderful to be able to do something nice for them.
Last Sunday in Wellington, an ALRANZ supporter organised a counter protest to show our support for those who provide abortion care and those who need it. Around 70 people came, chanted, displayed signs, and waved to all the many cars that honked in support. It was a pleasant ending to what was supposed to be the season of strife, which turned out so differently.
I can only conclude that as people are paying more attention to abortion now that law reform is on the new government’s radar, they are following through with increased support for law reform. For that too, I am grateful.
It’s here again.
I don’t know why, but I’m always surprised when Lent comes around, like it does every year.
With Lent, comes the annual international annoyance known as 40 Days for Life. Because 40 Days for Slut Shaming wouldn’t nearly sound so high-minded.
As usual, patients outside abortion services in New Zealand will be treated to lots of judgmental people with grisly signs touting false claims about abortion causing breast cancer and suicidal ideation.
Abortion providers must dread these six weeks.
ALRANZ will mark the occasion by again sponsoring #40daysfortruth. Each day we will post and tweet an actual, true fact about abortion, to counter the lies and misinformation you often hear. Check it out!
We have also set up a Givealittle page, to raise money to give treats, like flowers and chocolates, to abortion providers around the country. We will start with the big providers and move on to smaller ones as funds permit, and keep giving until we run out of money. Please help us support them!
Keep an eye out for counter protests at the abortion service near you. We’ll be out in front of Wellington Hospital whenever we can, and our friends in Auckland will be out there on the regular, too. Come join us, it’s fun!
Thank you for your support, now and throughout the year.