by Alison McCulloch
The discussion sparked by Richard Boock’s blog posts (“A Woman’s Right to Choose” and “Defending Your Right to An Opinion”) got me thinking about the how so many moral debates wind up with abortion as their end point. It’s not breaking news that societies tend to act out so many of their moral fears and panics by restricting sexual expression and reproductive rights. That they use contraception and abortion as tools to try to control what they fear or disapprove of. New Zealand has its own long history of doing this, be it trying to get white women to have children in order to avoid “race suicide” to keeping contraceptive information away from teenagers for fear of runaway teen sex – or something.
In a society that devalues certain groups, like those with Down syndrome or others who don’t fit a particular mold, as ours does, again we find the sharp end of the debate being focused on abortion. As if this, and so many other problems, could be solved if only women would stop having abortions for the “wrong” reasons.
The view of the 1977 Royal Commission report on Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion, on which our current abortion laws are based, is stuffed full of moral fears and prejudices that quite neatly reflected 1970s society (and, I’d argue, 2011 society, too.) Here, I’ll just offer an excerpt that’s closely related to the issue at hand, from page 200 of the report.
(5) It is not immoral to terminate a pregnancy where the fetus is likely to be born with a severe physical or mental handicap, because the burden of the handicapped person to himself and to his parents may be greater than the sum total of their happiness.
(6) The termination of unborn life for reasons of social convenience is morally wrong.
One could make a good case that (6) and (5) are at odds, that the utilitarian rule used in (5) is completely bizarre and that the use of “fetus” in one case and “unborn life” in the other displays a clear agenda. But aside from all that, look at what this says about societal attitudes.
Then, as now, there’s a desire to condemn abortions that take place for “social convenience” (a nicely loaded phrase the Commission used frequently to conjure up images of women rushing off to the clinic because that pregnancy was going to interfere with their party plans). At the same time, the Commission gave a hearty thumbs up to aborting fetuses that were likely to be a “burden” because society did, and largely still does, both devalue the disabled and approve of such abortions
So the cry goes up: let’s clamp down on the abortions. Let’s ban abortions for X or Y reason to fix X or Y problem. Let’s ban abortions for reasons that we find offensive or trivial or discriminatory or “socially convenient”. That will resolve the difficulty and absolve us. Of course it won’t. Women’s choices cannot but be influenced by the society they live in, the pressures they face, the judgments made by those around them. In a society that devalues women and girls, there’s pressure to abort females, just as in this society, there’s pressure to abort fetuses with certain conditions.
The next step is to make abortion-seeking women (and those who support and facilitate their choice) the culprits for wider society’s perceived failings. It is she who is the root cause of a particular moral problem or a particular group’s being devalued if she has an abortion for the “wrong” reason. It is she who is the cause of promiscuity or moral decline or the breakdown of the family (which hasn’t actually broken down yet). It is she who is the cause of child abuse or our inability to fund superannuation. (A shout-out to Garth George on these last two.)
While we still live under laws that try to pick and choose who should and who should not be able to access abortion care, campaigns to ban abortion for X and Y reason, reflecting X and Y societal failing, will continue. Which is why abortion should be, as of right, up to the individual, its availability not contingent on your having a “worthy” reason, where that reason is dictated and enforced by the state. No, it won’t be a choice made in a vacuum, so campaigns to eliminate, or at least reduce, the kind of pressure to abort that some women say they’ve felt on receiving certain fetal diagnoses, are crucial. Just as important are efforts to stop dumping society’s short-comings at the door of pregnant women and calling them names for choosing to have an abortion.
Abortion restrictions should not be used as a tool to try to deal with wider problems – be they real or imaginary. The social goal might be just, but enforced pregnancy cannot be an answer.
Alison McCulloch is on the National Executive of ALRANZ. The opinions in this post are her own.
The sharp end of the debate sparked by Boock is an issue of discrimination, despite attempts by some to draw it into a debate about abortion. “Down syndrome and other conditions”, to use the National Screening Unit’s term, is the only community in New Zealand targeted in this way. Maybe you could please clarify ALRANZ’s position on genetic screening being used for any other condition (race, ethnicity, gender etc), so that there is a level playing field, rather than just selecting the “disabled”. Without a level playing field, there is discrimination.
As with all forms of discrimination, it is up to the community concerned to determine whether they are being discriminated against. The Down syndrome community is saying that we are being discriminated against.
We can recognise an area of common ground in your statement “campaigns to eliminate, or at least reduce, the kind of pressure to abort that some women say they’ve felt on receiving certain fetal diagnoses, are crucial.” Although the pressure is real, not felt, as you put it, despite attempts by Boock to deny that this even occurs. Propagating factually incorrect statements, and then attempting to reinforce them, is not condusive to an informed debate.
Your point 5 from that report is interesting – the best pointer to eugenics in New Zealand that I have seen for a while.
The following is a quote, source at the bottom:
‘You mentioned abortion and I would say, “Oh yeah, that’s a fundamental part of women’s liberation,” and that was the end of it.
But then I started hearing about “late abortion.” The simple “fact” that the infant had been born, proponents suggest, should not get in the way of mercifully saving him or her from a life hardly worth living. At the same time, the parents are saved from the financial and emotional burden of caring for an imperfect child.’
And then I heard the head of the Reproductive Freedom Rights unit of the ACLU saying…at a forum, “I don’t know what all this fuss is about. Dealing with these handicapped infants is really an extension of women’s reproductive freedom rights, women’s right to control their own bodies.
That stopped me. It seemed to me we were not talking about Roe v. Wade. These infants were born. And having been born, as persons under the Constitution, they were entitled to at least the same rights as people on death row – due process, equal protection of the law. So for the first time, I began to pay attention to the “slippery slope” warnings of pro-lifers I read about or had seen on television. Because abortion had become legal and easily available, that argument ran – as you well know – infanticide would eventually become openly permissible, to be followed by euthanasia for infirm, expensive senior citizens.
And then…Australian bio-ethicist Peter Singer boldly assert that the slope was not slippery at all, but rather a logical throughway once you got on to it. This is what he said – and I’ve heard this in variant forms from many, many people who consider themselves compassionate, concerned with the powerless and all that.’
Nat Hentoff explaining in 1986 (25 years ago) why he became pro-life. Please read it. http://groups.csail.mit.edu/mac/users/rauch/nvp/consistent/indivisible.html
I am old enough to remember when people scoffed at prolifers for suggesting that abortion would lead to euthanasia. The “Baby Does” Nat Hentoff refers to are at least two early 1980s USA cases where babies with Down syndrome and spina bifida with correctable deformities were initially denied operations by their parents. The boy with DS and duodenal atresia died from starvation; the girl with SB lived after she was operated on anyway.
So according to the Royal Commission it is not immoral to terminate a pregnancy where the fetus is likely to be born with a severe physical or mental handicap, because the burden of the handicapped person to himself and to his parents may be greater than the sum total of their happiness but the termination of unborn life for reasons of social convenience is morally wrong.
But you see it doesn’t stop there and here’s why, and its called The Groningen Protocol.
The most serious instance of disability discrimination appears under the Groningen Protocol developed in the Netherlands to regulate and justify hastening the death of newborns with severe impairments. Doctors are directed to discriminate their counselling based on a babies disability. Parents are counselled that their babies’ impairments will result in a life not worth living and that they should die. This is often not evidence based but the result of implicit stereotyping about the lives of people with disabilities. This practice is has resulted in the death of more than 20 Dutch babies born with Spina Bifida. These were NEWBORN babies folks. The Groningen Protocol has been accepted as a standard of practice by the Dutch Paediatrics Association. But it is not only Dutch children with Spina Bifida who are at risk for dying through application of the Protocol but many others, including premature babies, infants with Down Syndrome and other infants born with significant problems.
The Protocol holds that it is medically and legally proper to withhold, withdraw treatment or medically terminate the life of a baby, when two out of the following seven conditions are met
• functional disability,
• pain, discomfort,
• poor prognosis, and hopelessness,
• lack of self-sufficiency,
• inability to communicate,
• hospital dependency and
• long life expectancy (with a disability)
The Protocol is applied to
• babies with no chance of survival.
• babies that have a very poor prognosis and are dependent on intensive care.
• babies with a hopeless prognosis who experience what parents and medical experts deem to be unbearable suffering. For example, a child with the most serious form of Spina Bifida who is judged, even after many operations to have an extremely poor quality of life. A baby like my son.
The Protocol states that people with severe disabilities have a poor quality of life – often so poor that others are entitled to decide that they should die. A statement like ‘…a child with the most serious form of Spina Bifida will have an extremely poor quality of life….’ which assigns to all persons in a group an attribute that may be true of some members is a stereotype and reflects a discriminatory attitude towards people with disabilities. Active life-ending measures are only recommended because of disability. Parents of a ‘normal’ baby that may need temporary help to breathe would be counselled to approve ventilation, but the parents of a baby with a severe disability would not.
There is no universal consensus on the definition of what constitutes quality of life, particularly for children. Adults with Spina Bifida report that although they suffer from pain and discomfort related to their condition, they do not experience unbearable and hopeless suffering. In a study of Spina Bifida patients cited by the Health Council of the Netherlands, there was a large discrepancy between the negative medical prognosis made during the patients’ infancy and the degree of disability described by their parents after a four to eighteen year period in 50% of all cases. Quality of life is assessed by persons who are living with a disability or who are intimately involved in the life of a person with a disability. One study concluded that Spina Bifida is not a very important determinant of life satisfaction. Parents play a key role in protecting their children’s rights and their best interests remain the province of parents or when they fail, to the courts. Health professionals have a duty to avoid discrimination and maximize the life possibilities of any child with a disability. It is not appropriate to give health professionals the power to decide that a disability is so severe that the ‘best interests’ of the child is to die.
Practices, like the Groningen Protocol, that counsel parents that it is best for babies to die because they have severe disabilities is in direct contravention of the standards required under the UNCRPD , and violates international human rights conventions that set the standards for legal and humane medical treatment recommendations for all people. The International Federation for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus (IF) fiercely opposes the Groningen Protocol.
New Zealand follows international trends (eventually) and we should be extremely concerned at any disability discrimination, whether it be at the point of prenatal diagnosis or in the debate that will ensue about legalising euthanasia because if you are disabled, sick or infirm there will no safe place where your life and your presence on the planet is not examined and your early demise justified by those who should know better.
In the interests of the debate that ALRANZ says needs to happen, maybe you could reply to some of the posts on the “Choice and Antenatal Screening” thread and this one, particulary as your own supporters continue to defend the discriminatory practice of eugenic abortion towards the “disability” community.
A good starting point would be to clarify your statement in the August Newsletter that ALRANZ support abortion for any reason. Any reason includes eugenics and principles of racial hygiene by definition and practices such as gender, racial and ethnical selection of baby type through selective abortion. Most people understand the differance between ending a pregnancy and choosing the type of child they will have.
Does ALRANZ support abortion for eugenic purposes? New Zealander’s have a right to know where ALRANZ stands on this important issue.
Let’s turn to ALRANZ supporters continued attempts to promote the myth “There’s no suggestion of coercion or persuasion or encouragement one way or another.” in relation to the subject of voluntary screening and the resulting termination of pregnancies where there is a diagnosis of Down syndrome. A myth he attempts to defend at THM “there’s no compulsion to even take the test, let alone coercion to act on a positive result.’ Members of Savingdowns can personally testify to being encouraged to terminate a pregnancy based on a diagnosis of Down syndrome or Spina Bifida and even to offers to allow babies to be starved to death after birth if they are “disabled”. There are posts in response to Boocks articles about this practice going on. Why are ALRANZ supporters denying this practice when it occurs and then attempting to condemn it in your post above? There is no consistancy here in ALRANZs position.
Hi Mike, Thanks for your comments. I’m replying in a personal capacity as author of the above post, not as ALRANZ. (That said, you can see what ALRANZ’s positions are by looking at their Web site, in particular: http://www.alranz.org/aboutus/about.html and related links to the left on that page. That’s probably more reliable than citing as ALRANZ’s position various blog comments. As for screening, ALRANZ doesn’t have a position on screening as such, just as your group doesn’t have a position on abortion as such. But ALRANZ would be concerned about over-arching issues such as privacy, patient rights, choice, equity and justice.) Speaking as Alison, and giving you my personal opinion re your question above about “eugenic abortion”, I support any individual woman’s right to have an abortion for her own reasons, and I don’t consider this position to be one of supporting “eugenic abortion”. I oppose any coerced abortion, including coercion by the state or by any individual, of course, just as I oppose anyone being coerced or pressured to continue a pregnancy against their will.
Thanks Alison, “I support any individual woman’s right to have an abortion for her own reasons, and I don’t consider this position to be one of supporting “eugenic abortion”.”
Would you expand on that please. An “own reason” includes one based in eugenics.
I flatly reject eugenics. I don’t believe in it factually or morally. But I do believe in every person’s right to have control over their own body without interference from the state or religious authorities or anyone else.
What? “Control your own body” even when it clearly results in eugenics? What about all the people with Down syndrome who are saying “Stop testing for DS now!” what right do they have? No protection. No value. No rights. What show have they got against this spurious rationalisation of eugencis?
So your statement “I support any individual woman’s right to have an abortion for her own reasons” actually means “I support any individual woman’s right to have an abortion for her own reasons, except eugenics”.
Have I interpreted that correctly?
Moderator here: I think Alison has stated her position quite clearly. At this stage we are just going round in circles. You and other commenters clearly don’t agree with a woman’s right to choose and you clearly think that those of us who do are eugenists. You are welcome to those views of course. This is a pro-choice blog though and these endless repetitive comments are not further advancing any kind of constructive debate. All comments will be subject to moderator approval from this point on, and we won’t be publishing them if they are just repeating what has been said over and over.
As an ALRANZ member and contributor to this blog, I support the right of the pregnant person to decide whether or not to continue their pregnancy for whatever reason. I don’t think fetal abnormality should have a special status in the law because I don’t think there should be any conditions on access to abortion. Pregnant, don’t want a baby, have access to an abortion with no need to justify the decision to anyone else.
That’s a yes to eugenic abortion, being one for “whatever reason”. I see the dilema of ALRANZ, you won’t be endering yourself’s with mainstream New Zealand with the pro-eugenic argument.
I’m shocked! This is unreal. Pro-eugenic abortion. How can this be? Unbelievable.
Nice post, Alison. It all comes down to a woman’s right to choose, even for what some might view as “unworthy” reasons. If, as a community, we don’t like those reasons, the challenge is to change societal attitudes towards them; not further restrict a woman’s right to choose. Enforced pregnancy will never be an answer, whether the law agrees or not…
So now you are defending the rights to choose to discriminate as well. As to societal values, you have excelled in putting your line in the sand as to how you view people with Down syndrome.
But still you haven’t rebutted the argument.
A woman’s right to choose…what? Death for her child before birth. What about the child’s right to life? In the case of eugenic abortions these were babies for whom the mother originally chose life, i.e. they were originally WANTED. By the way just because a pregnancy is initially unplanned, inconvenient or not wanted does not mean the child will still be unwanted by the time he or she is born, even if prenatally diagnosed with a disability. Continuing one’s pregnancy opens up even more choices.
I guess we are well on the way to “conditional pregnancy” where some women hold off until after the genetic tests before deciding whether the baby has a suitable level of presumed intelligence, physical ability, health or the right sex before making her “choice”.
Is it hardly surprising that after birth small children have their lives ended by men who decide the presence of (usually) their partner’s small child is an inconvenience. If we devalue the lives of babies before birth why are we so surprised that some people don’t value them after birth?
As we come closer to Christmas (Christ Mass) perhaps you could spare a thought for the fact that we are celebrating the birth of a child who arrived at a rather inconvenient time for his parents who had to flee with him to Egypt for safety when Herod sought to kill him by killing all boy babies under the age of two years. It is interesting that in the Bible the “bad news” that Jesus would suffer was only given to his mother AFTER he was born (First two chapters of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew).
Ah yes I remember that story from my childhood bible stories book. Cute but not my favorite fairytale.
My least favourite myth is the one that says abortion doesn’t kill a baby or harm women.
According to the ALRANZ website, “We want the law changed to allow women free choice – to be able to choose whether to continue with an UNPLANNED pregnancy or to obtain an abortion.” (Emphasis added.)
Nothing there about aborting a PLANNED pregnancy.
Just been educating myself here:
Very enlightening. I hope ALRANZ takes note of their last sentence:
“When there are conflicting and equally sincerely held different viewpoints, one particular viewpoint should not be allowed to dominate to the extent that that viewpoint is imposed upon others by law.”
Well that puts paid to their campaign to decriminalize abortion.
Richard-how are attitudes towards disability going to change when there are posts around like yours? On the pretext of promoting “women’s choice” you are fuelling the myths surrounding disability and promoting instead the decimation of a certain sector of society. It is very painful for me to witness ALRANZ accepting this screening programme that will wipe out the likes of my beloved son who has Down syndrome. And believe me-given the “choice” my son and his friends with DS certainly “choose” life-they are having a great life, thanks very much. It was so much fun last night at the “Young Adults Christmas party” hearing young people with Down Syndrome discussing going flatting, getting jobs and going to parties and laughing about the jokes in the Christmas Crackers (yes-people with DS can read and I’m making sure my son doesn’t come across any of this sort of stuff because it sure upsets him-as you can imagine!). Why should people with disabilites be so discriminated against? How can anybody support a programme that results in the massive reduction of people with disabilites? How does a woman’s decision override those of the people with disabilities?
Oh well-no surprises there-one of your bloggers (LD) I see has no respect for other’s values and beliefs so why am I surprised at the lack of respect for disabled people? I still am surprised though as to why would you not lobby against a programme that discriminates so badly against disability that it very effectively reduces numbers of disabled people in our communities? Ever wondered how humans could let such atrocities as the Nazi death camps occur-well here’s your answer! Lack of respect, care and love for those most vulnerable in our communities is how it all starts. And groups that will doggedly hold onto a so-called “principle” such as “women’s choice”, despite its obvious destructive effects on a devalued community, leads to further rationalisation of perpetrating crimes against humanity.
Come on-wiping out people with Down syndrome is wrong! Make a stand against it.
Valueall, read http://www.alranz.org/laws/whyweneedachange/whatiswrong.html
“8/ There is a problem for abortions on the grounds of fetal abnormality.
This is a ground up to 20 weeks but sometimes the diagnosis is not made until after 20 weeks and the abortion must be done on the grounds of serious permanent injury to the mental health of the woman. In the past the Abortion Supervisory Committee has pointed out this anomaly to Parliament more than once but no action has been taken. This situation is distressing for the woman and her family.”
Note the problem is NOT that babies are being aborted on the grounds of fetal abnormality, but they can’t LEGALLY be aborted for this reason after 20 weeks. Not to worry though the mental health grounds can get over that wee hurdle, as I know because a relative had an abortion at around 30 weeks. Ironically the next child has autism, so probably wasn’t quite the baby they “planned” to have either.
Do you mean me? I am one of the regular bloggers here and Alison is a guest blogger. If so, what in my comment showed a lack of respect for other people’s values and beliefs? I was just stating my personal belief in abortion on demand and a woman’s right to choose.
referring to “LD” disrespecting Stemcl’s religious beliefs……”fairy tales” as he/she called it. Pretty low and desperate response I thought.
By the way ALRANZ, I enjoy having pictures for beginners to look at when telling them about embryology, kind of helps them to see that an embryo and a fetus look, well…like a baby even before 9 weeks, and very definitely after that. I notice there are illustrations on other pages. A little oversight that you might wish to rectify…or not!
Guess I’ll have to continue using my own resources complete with 3D fetal models. A teacher borrowed them along with a pile of written information on abortion for her Year 12 class, and the students were fascinated with the models – strangely not so interested in abortion.
From the Moderator: @stmcl Thanks for your comments from which I understand you disagree with our pro-choice position in general. Please try to keep comments on the topic of this particular blog post or your comments will go into moderation. Please have a look at our Commenting policy at http://alranz.wordpress.com/commenting/
Particularly point 3: “We will have very little tolerance for comments that only serve to announce that you do not agree with our pro-choice stance”. Thanks, ALRANZ.
um………so it’s “pro choice” then but not “freedom of speech”?
My apologies. I was only reading the embryology page to see whether there was a mention of fetal abnormality. There isn’t but there is this:
“Abortion does not reflect a loss of reverence for life. Reverence for life includes concern for the quality of life for the children born and consideration for the rights and well-being of women unwillingly pregnant.”
So does that mean that in the case of children with Down syndrome and the other conditions that get prenatally screened for that if the mother decides (on the “unbiased” advice of doctors) that her child’s future “quality of life” will probably be poor that she is showing “reverence for life” by allowing her child to be killed via an abortion?
As the original post says, the subject is nominally the legality of abortion in NZ, but the content is intensely emotional. We all agree that coercion is bad. We find ourselves in the unhappy position of trying to get the law to do the coercing for us.
Consider the US experience from a Supreme Court ruling that balances personal rights against State(s) interests, on the basis of the Constitution. With some caveats, this balance allows American women freedom of choice through the first six months of pregnancy. After that, the situation is less clear and more contentious.
Most Americans accept this legal balance; few like it.
Point 1: The US balance works well enough. US society mucks its way onward as usual. Most concerns in the US neither begin nor end considering abortion. (The economy and jobs are a high priority at the moment.)
Now, Google “witch ‘foetal human sacrifce’,” and follow a few diverse links. You will see that a very few practitioners of a neo-ancient pagan religion do perform rituals that intend pregnancy followed by ritual human sacrifice (by legal abortion). Almost nobody approves, so it is kept quite secret … lest pro-lifers turn murderous. (See Point 1.)
The current NZ law allows abortions before 20 weeks “to preserve the mental health of the woman.” That is, the law requires a pregnant woman to affirm that she needs an abortion to preserve her own mental health. In light of the intensity of her normal values, beliefs, and religious practices, such an affirmation is practically irrelevant.
Point 2: Therefore, the current law is practically irrelevant. So the content of the real debate falls back to emotions, where coercion is relevant. (Even though we don’t like coercion unless it is our own.)
Conclusion: It will be helpful either to remove or replace the current, irrelevant law.
…May we compassionately refrain from pressing our own righteous values, beliefs, and practices upon others…?