With the final election results in and Cabinet posts announced, it’s clear that things are going to get tougher for supporters of reproductive rights in the coming parliamentary term.
Abortion was invisible as an election issue in 2011, largely as a result of more ominous threats such as the global economy, environmental damage and climate change and the more immediate concerns of earthquakes, mine disasters, interruption to gas supplies and a shipwreck. And then there was all the hype around the rugby world cup. Women’s health was once again relegated to the bottom of the list of things to address. Abortion still suffers from the stigma of being seen as a controversial and divisive issue rather than as a straightforward matter of health, justice and rights. Not one party mentioned it in their manifesto.
Steve Chadwick, with her background in nursing and health administration, was the one MP who championed the cause of updating our 34-year-old legislation to the extent of decriminalising abortion. ALRANZ remains grateful for her steadfast and balanced approach to the issue and regrets that she was in effect punished for her efforts. Her low placement on the Labour party list means that she is now leaving Parliament. No doubt, in time, there will be others to take her place within Parliament but pro-choice supporters and the women of New Zealand have lost a staunch advocate. May her compassionate influence continue beyond the parliamentary realm.
What do the results of the election tell us and what can we expect in the next three years of this government? It is not good news for abortion law reform. Prime Minister John Key has stated that abortion is not a priority. Several of his senior colleagues, Bill English, Judith Collins, Gerry Brownlee and Chris Finlayson, are hardline conservatives on abortion and will resist any moves towards liberalisation. And, as we’ve just learned, the all-important Justice portfolio – previously held by the quite benign Simon Power, has been given to Collins. It was Collins who, in 2004, championed the attempt to make parental involvement in abortion decisions for under -16s compulsory, and with anti-choice groups like Family First pushing this issue from outside Parliament, there is a likelihood it will resurface. Hekia Parata was only Minister of Women’s Affairs for a short time, and was well aware of the importance of reproductive justice issues. She’ll be missed in this role. Jo Goodhew has picked up Women’s Affairs. She has a nursing background, but has tended to vote conservative on abortion related issues (in particular on past ASC appointments) and also did so on the Marriage (Gender Clarification) Amendment Bill 2005, defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman. (The Bill was rejected.)
Although abortion is usually regarded as a conscience issue in terms of how MPs vote, past experience tells us that there is considerable influence for members to vote along party lines. A list of how MPs have voted on reproductive rights issues is on our Web site. (We will be updating the Web version of this list to represent the new Parliament shortly, but the main players are almost all there. Meanwhile, we can email you a Word version of the updated list if you’d like one. We’re at safeandlegalgmailcom)
The Labour Party has a history of promoting social justice and it is therefore disappointing that it has not used its influence when in power to advance the cause of women’s rights in reproductive health in general and abortion in particular. Women will never attain equality in other spheres if they are unable to control their fertility. Carol Beaumont is a loss to the party as an advocate for equal rights. Lawyer, Charles Chauvel has demonstrated an understanding of the need for law reform and has spoken out as Justice spokesperson. May he continue to do so. We are hoping victorious Carmel Sepuloni holds on to her seat in West Auckland. The severe diminution of the power of Labour in opposition with 34 seats as opposed to 59 for National means they will not be setting the agenda but maybe this is a time when they can afford to take the risks they were unprepared to take in the past.
The Greens must be congratulated on their success in the election. With 14 MPs, The Greens will have that much more ability to influence policy. It is the only party to support abortion law reform although even then it is not written into their manifesto. With no electorate responsibilities the Greens are able to focus on national issues and pro-choice activists needs to work closely with them.
New Zealand First’s success does not augur well for abortion law reform, and with eight seats the party has a considerable voting bloc. In past parliaments, Winston Peters has always been anti-abortion and it is likely that most of his colleagues will follow that lead. However, in a questionnaire from Family First, Tracey Martin stood out as liberal with regard to the “rights of the unborn child”, “informed consent” and sex education, although she supported parental notification. The others pretty much followed the party line. In the past Barbara Stewart had a mixed voting record which gives her a ranking of fairly conservative.
The Maori Party does not support a restrictive stance on abortion although Tariana Turia is personally opposed to abortion, and Te Ururoa Flavell has suggested he supports mandatory parental notification. This is most likely to mean three fairly conservative seats in parliament. On the other hand Hone Harawira, representing Mana, is clear that he would not support restrictions. Peter Dunne representing the United Future party is fairly liberal, but cautiously in favour of “informed consent”, but then that just sounds like “common sense” right?
John Banks representing Act is well known for his anti-abortion stance and that won’t change. Unsurprising given that, as Dame Margaret Sparrow outlined in her book Abortion Then and Now, his parents were jailed as criminal abortionists when he was just 18.
So apart from the expanded Greens and the diminished Labourites, there will be little support for the decriminalisation of abortion in the next three years. However that should not stop us from being clear and resolute about our long-term goals and defining a pathway for future change. With the support of the pro-choice community and a lot of hard work, the least we can do is prevent any restrictive changes.
A version of this article appears in our November-December Newsletter, which has been sent to members. It will be posted on our Web site at www.alranz.org in the coming weeks.