by Alison McCulloch
Former National Party MP George Gair has died at the age of 88. Gair was key player in the abortion rights struggle in the 1970s that culminated in passage of the 1977 Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act, which we still have and under which abortion remains criminalised. Gair was the leader inside the governing National caucus of the liberal pro-choice faction, a role that ultimately led to his falling out with his leader, the then Prime Minister Rob Muldoon, a conservative on abortion rights. Although he didn’t take an unequivocal ‘woman’s right to choose’ position, Gair fought hard against the conservative factions in Parliament to try to liberalise the CS&A bill – a fight that was ultimately lost.
I interviewed George Gair for my book “Fighting to Choose: The Abortion Rights Struggle in New Zealand”, and exchanged correspondence with him as the book progressed. He was unfailingly kind and encouraging, and at the time I felt lucky to have been able to talk to him about just what had gone on inside the National Party caucus at such a pivotal time for abortion rights. I was very sad to hear of his death.
By way of tribute, or history, or something, I thought I’d post some excerpts from the interview I did, which was conducted on 12 March 2008 at Mr. Gair’s home north of Auckland.
In the National Party, how was it that you were – or ended up being – pro-choice, one of the few members of the party?
I had never had to address the question of abortion, certainly not seriously, in my family, to my best knowledge anyone in my family. The reason why I came to be interested in the first place is a rather unusual story. Let me tell you. Gerry Wall was the member of Parliament for Porirua, he was a Labour member, he was a doctor, but he was very pro-life – I don’t know if they called it that in those days – and I think probably a devout Catholic. He was also Speaker of the House at one stage. Now Gerry Wall introduced a bill, I’m sure it was in the form of a – inaudible – and he and some of those that were supporting him, this is in about 1974, referred to babies being murdered in Remuera. This was quite a serious allegation. (more…)
This week, the Vote Choice series looks at Dr Jamie Whyte, the leader of the ACT party, and his views on abortion and decriminalisation. A google search of Whyte and abortion provides little in the way of his opinion but does provide an interesting array of articles to read, many from his lecturing days in the UK and/or other academic responses to some of his philosophical arguments. So it was back again to Family First’s Value Your Vote page for information on where Whyte stands in relation to abortion law reform (thanking them is becoming a bit too common for comfort, just saying).
It has always been ALRANZ’s understanding that despite the libertarian positioning of the party that it was generally anti-choice. Possibly this perception has been clouded by Andy Moore’s former role as an office-holder of ACT on Campus. However, Whyte seems to be setting a different tone in relation to abortion law reform.
Whyte received sad faces from Family First, in the following areas:
- Supports decriminalization of abortion with note that this should be “subject to a restriction regarding the age of the foetus”.
- Opposes “informed consent” for abortion (which is usually anti code for telling pregnant people medically unverified lies – e.g. an abortion could increase the risk of breast cancer – something that has no basis in science!)
- Undecided on the right to life of the unborn child, which he caveats with the comment: Which unborn child are you talking about? A 6 week old foetus or a 37 week old foetus? The difference is important.
ALRANZ would also agree. There is a difference between a fully viable baby at 37 weeks and one still in an embryonic state at 6 weeks. Although it is always good to point out the obvious that no doctor would perform a ‘termination’ at 37 weeks so this is a bit of a false dichotomy; but one that might explain his comment of only supporting decriminalisation in relation to restrictions on the age of the fetus. He may sympathise with the Greens’ policy, which would only allow abortion on request up to 20 weeks?
Where we disagree (and we’d be interested to know his rationale for this) is on parental notification. He would support attempts to change the law to require parental notification for abortions where the pregnant person is under 17.
All in all Jamie Whyte, and perhaps even the party itself, would appear to be a potential ally for a very narrowly focused abortion law reform effort. Out of those ACT candidates that responded to Family First (5 out of 12, including Whyte), three support law reform (Whyte, John Thompson and Stephen Berry), while David Seymour is undecided and Ian Cummings oppose it.
However, taking a wider reproductive justice view, and given ACT’s opposition to free healthcare — its policy (pdf) says “ACT does not support free healthcare as this results in the provision of a service which is not valued” — as well as its “one country, one law” attacks on Māori, any alliance over decriminalisation would likely break down over treatment of marginalised groups and access to abortion services. It’s no use decriminalising abortion if access to services, as well as to health-care in general (not to mention income equality) — are reduced through other means.
Seymour’s comment was “The current law is unclear and should be clarified so that the law is in line with actual practice and so that all cases are treated equally. Such a law would be a conscience vote and I would be guided by my electorate if elected. There seems to be some potential there.
CLICK HERE TO DONATE
TO HELP US CONTINUE OUR PRO-CHOICE WORK
This week the Vote Choice Series is featuring the leader of the Labour Party, David Cunliffe, and his views on abortion law reform. While Mr. Cunliffe has not to date subjected himself to the Bob McCoskrie/Family First show, he did make a brief comment on abortion as part of the Labour leadership race last year. Thanks to Young Labour, spearheaded by the great Jessie Lipscombe, all leadership candidates were asked about law reform. This is what Cunliffe had to say:
“I want to see a woman’s right to choose protected. The current law hasn’t been reviewed for many years and I think that is now urgent. The Law Commission would be best placed to undertake this review as it is a conscience issue which splits across parties”.
The statement starts off on a positive note, with Cunliffe touting his pro-choice credentials. However he then makes a deft political move of side stepping the issue and placing it into the hands of the Law Commission. Regardless of the possible merits of the Law Commission route, in this instance it seems to be a both a conciliatory act and an easy out on the part of the would-be leader. Specifically, a review by the Law Commission will not shift the ability of MPs to vote their conscience (i.e its recommendations are unlikely to change the views of the dyed in the wool antis), but it does have potential to provide legitimacy to what is presumed to be a review that would change the law for the better. (Remember how well that went in the 70s with the Royal Commission, which we can safely blame for the confusing and useless law we currently have.)
It kind of sounds like we’re not even satisfied with what is overall a pretty positive statement from a potential Prime Minister. However even Brendan Malone (Pro-Life NZ) in his blog the Leading Edge thought this statement reflected Cunliffe’s desire to appear moderate (we don’t often agree so that is a momentous statement!). And it is this attempt at moderation that irks; no woman’s sexual and reproductive health should be subject to political game playing. Cunliffe is certainly not alone or the worst at side stepping the issue by deferring it to other institutions. As we know a similar approach worked in Victoria, Australia in 2008 and the outcome there was a law that allows abortion up to 24 weeks.
A look at Cunliffe’s previous voting record does further contextualize what we acknowledge was a one off statement at the time he was seeking to make himself palatable to the Labour Party members. Unlike Key, Cunliffe did not support any of the amendments in favour of parental notification in 2004. He has also consistently voted for candidates for the Abortion Supervisory Committee that are relatively liberal in their views, and against those who are supported by the antis.
Overall we’d be pretty positive about David Cunliffe’s position on abortion law reform and give him the pro-choice tick from ALRANZ. However we would like to see greater leadership from him on the issue. If he truly wants to see a woman’s right to choose protected then more than a pro-choice side step is needed; change will come when politicians do not feel compelled to cower behind judicial organizations to be effective.