Last Saturday 18 March, Aotearoa New Zealand marked the first anniversary of the passage of the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion (Safe Areas) Amendment Act 2022. ALRANZ Abortion Rights Aotearoa notes that in spite of the act, New Zealand has no safe areas.
The process to create a safe area is cumbersome and time-consuming. It requires months of work by the Ministry of Health to plot out the safe area and get it approved. After all that, the fate of a safe area is in the hands of Cabinet, which can move it forward or ignore it.
There are currently about a dozen safe area applications in the pipeline. Half are ready for Cabinet to consider.
People who receive or provide abortion care need safe areas yesterday. Every day, people have to walk by judgemental anti-abortion protesters with huge, misleading, gory signs in order to access safe, legal health care.
ALRANZ president Dr Tracy Morison said, “Parliament passed the Safe Areas Bill because they saw the need for it. If there’s a need, and there definitely is, then the process for creating safe areas isn’t fit for purpose because not one safe area has been created to date.”
ALRANZ believes Cabinet needs to approve the safe areas applications as a matter of urgency, or admit the government got it wrong when they set out the requirements for creating safe areas.
One abortion may be viewed as a reasonable “get out of jail free” card; having more than one abortion is often presented as beyond the pale. A woman might be able to decide she cannot continue with a pregnancy once, but to do so more than once speaks of her irresponsibility, fecklessness and failure to use contraception.
We recently carried out research on women in Scotland who’d had more than one abortion. Our findings highlighted some key barriers faced by women seeking abortions, which fail to be recognised because of commonly-held assumptions. These relate to problems with contraception, intimate partner violence, life aspirations and social or economic disadvantage. And what do these problems have in common? They are all factors over which a woman may have little or no control, and which are compounded by feelings of shame and stigma.
Problems with contraception
Finding the right contraceptive can be difficult for some women; options remain relatively limited, and side effects can be disruptive and offputtingly grim. Plus, contraception does not always work, and the burden of trying to ensure that it does continues to fall disproportionately to women.
What some may find most surprising is that most women in our study were using contraception when they became pregnant – particularly those who had undergone a previous abortion. For most interviewees it was the failure of condoms or the pill that resulted in their most recent pregnancy. Many had tried other “long acting” methods, such as contraceptive implants or intrauterine devices in the past, but had experienced problems. What this suggests is that women are not treating abortion “like contraception”, but are having problems finding a method that suits and works for them and their partner.
The link between intimate partner violence and abortion has long been acknowledged, and abortion clinic staff are trained to look out for signs of an abusive relationship. We found that for many women seeking more than one abortion, experiences of violent or controlling relationships were common and contributed to their decision to end a pregnancy on at least one occasion.
For some, this included partners refusing to use condoms or let the woman use the pill. For others, escalating physical violence led to the termination of a planned pregnancy, or meant that abortion was the only way to break ties with an aggressive or violent man.
Aspirations and disadvantage
Reproductive rights advocates often point out that the power to decide if and when to have a pregnancy is fundamental to gender equality. Women need to be able to decide if and when they want to be pregnant in order to have the kinds of lives that they want.
Issues relating to life aspirations and social or economic disadvantage loomed large in women’s decisions to seek abortion more than once, with many citing not having their own home, still being in full-time education and career or other life ambitions as reasons they did not want to be pregnant. Their experiences suggested that caring commitments, concerns about existing children, and financial instability were also significant factors.
‘Here I am again’
The fact that women may increasingly be trying to obtain abortion medications via the internet has recently received attention. For some women we spoke to, this was the case primarily because they felt so uncomfortable about having to return to their local abortion service, admit that it had happened again and face what they believed would be negative judgement from health professionals. For some who did return to services, this attitude was all too real.
Beyond those who sought options online, many women we spoke to had also experienced significant health problems prior to their pregnancies, including severe anxiety and depression. Their need to prioritise their own health had contributed to their decisions to seek abortion. Unfortunately, feelings of shame arising from the stigma around abortion had in turn had a negative impact on their mental well-being in the short term. For some, this meant they felt unable to talk to friends or family, even when they had been previously supportive, for fear of being judged for making the same “mistake” again.
What this all points to is that there needs to be less focus on how many abortions women have and less judgement of those seeking more than one. Instead we need greater focus on the gender inequalities which result in women bearing the brunt of pregnancy prevention and experiencing violence in intimate relationships.
No woman should be deemed irresponsible, feckless, or a failure for needing more than one abortion. And no woman should see her life aspirations, physical or mental health stymied by pregnancies she does not want or feel able to continue.
Today is the annual Abortion Provider Appreciation Day, created to recognise the vital role that abortion providers play in comprehensive sexual and reproductive healthcare. These healthcare providers work tirelessly to provide high-quality, compassionate patient care despite challenges, including stigma and harassment. This is a day to express gratitude for their part in providing essential health services and working against lingering stigma.
“This year’s Abortion Provider Appreciation Day is particularly significant,” says ALRANZ president, Dr Tracy Morison, “It comes at a time when the need to protect access to safe and legal abortion care has never been more urgent. The erosion of abortion rights in countries like the United States reminds us of the fragility of our hard-won rights. We must not take them for granted!”
In Aotearoa New Zealand, despite the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic downturn, abortion providers have remained committed to providing safe and legal abortion care, even under difficult working conditions and in the face of renewed opposition from the small but vocal anti-abortion faction.
On Abortion Provider Appreciation Day, we want to show these dedicated healthcare workers how much we appreciate and respect what they do. We call on everyone in Aotearoa New Zealand to join us in honouring their work and standing with them in the face of any opposition they may encounter. ALRANZ is running a fundraiser to thank local service providers, those who wish to donate are directed to their Givealittle page for details.
Together, we can ensure that everyone in the country has access to safe and legal abortion care.
The New Zealand anti-abortion movement seems to believe that we’re the fifty-first US state rather than a sovereign country. Otherwise, why would they wholly parrot every cue and soundbyte from their US counterparts?
Now, some might say that this is because the anti-abortion and pro-choice movements are both transnational networks, but in reality, the information flows within our movement are quite dissimilar to theirs. ALRANZ was originally named for the United Kingdom’s Abortion Law Reform Association, just as Voice for Life was originally named SPUC (the Society for Protection of the Unborn Child) after the UK SPUC. However, by the eighties, things had started to diverge from this initial model.
This first became noticeable in 1983. Our American members may remember that at this point, prohibitionist anti-abortionists tried to introduce a “Human Life Amendment” that would have prohibited abortion across the United States, except that the Democrats made substantial gains in the midterm elections and sank the idea. Because SPUC and the anti-abortion newspaper Humanity (sic) had concluded that the US anti-abortion movement was making more headway than the more incrementalist British SPUC, it decided to increasingly use propaganda, rhetoric, tactics, and strategies from the United States. Thus, when the Court of Appeal decided that there was no “BMZEF personhood” clause within the Contraception Sterilisation and Abortion Act after Wall v Livingston, SPUC and anti-abortion National MP Doug Kidd decided to lobby for a “Status of the Unborn Child Bill”, which would have prohibited abortion, except it sank at its first reading.
That wasn’t the end of the story. Influenced by the US anti-abortion movement and the highly Americanised New Zealand fundamentalist Protestant subculture, as well as opposition to homosexual law reform in the mid-eighties, the Pro-Life Action Group, Christians for Life and Operation Rescue formed to picket and trespass within abortion clinic property. Unfortunately, this led to profound tensions within the anti-abortion movement itself, between those who favoured parliamentary lobbying and those who wanted to engage in exhibitionist spectacles in the name of their philosophy and religious conviction. As the only result of Operation Rescue New Zealand’s antics was the reaffirmation of Wall v Livingstone at the Court of Appeal and then at the Privy Council, the legislative conservatives pulled the plug on Operation Rescue and refused to further fund its activities.
Amusingly, there was then another schism within the New Zealand anti-abortion movement as militant Christchurch SPUC, under the leadership of former Operation Rescue Christchurch enthusiast Ken Orr, decided to resurrect the Status of the Unborn Child Bill from the early eighties- again, mirroring the split between the US American Life League and National Right to Life Committee over prohibitionist versus incrementalist anti-abortion tactics. SPUC expelled Christchurch SPUC, which rebranded as Right to Life New Zealand.
Over time, the New Zealand anti-abortion movement fell more and more under the spell of US anti-abortion propaganda, rhetoric, tactics, and strategies. During the Abortion Legislation Act debate, this became quite apparent on Voice for Life’s Facebook page and its continual citation of American political and historical precedents. It was almost as if it had given up trying to adapt them to New Zealand’s very different society, politics and culture, which is much less religious than the United States. This may demonstrate the shallow roots that the “New Zealand” anti-abortion movement actually has within Aotearoa/New Zealand society and culture. Meanwhile, ALRANZ had taken note of a greater range of pro-choice precedents within societies more akin to our own, such as Canada and Australia. And unlike our opponents, we adapted them to our own domestic context, much like our own Australian and Canadian counterparts.
It seems appropriate to end on a reflective note. If one looks at Voice for Life’s Facebook page, one sees VFL President Kate Cormack standing outside a US (Republican) Congressional office. Which says it all, really. But as the late great David Bowie so memorably sang once, This is Not America.
On the day of her resignation announcement, ALRANZ Abortion Rights Aotearoa expressed its gratitude to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for her steadfast support for reproductive rights in Aotearoa.
During the second 2017 leaders’ debate, Ardern stated her position that abortion should be decriminalised in Aotearoa and treated as a health matter rather than a criminal matter. Ardern stood firm in her support for the bodily autonomy of all citizens, and as Prime Minister she presided over a government that decriminalised abortion in its first term.
After almost 50 years of neglect and shamefaced silence from New Zealand’s political class (with a few exceptions), Ardern flipped the script and took a stand on much-needed, much delayed reform. Even though it was a conscience vote, the government’s support provided cover for MPs who might otherwise have been too intimidated to vote for reform.
In the years since New Zealand’s COVID-19 response saved thousands of Kiwi lives, Ardern, along with other high-profile women, has experienced vicious misogynist attacks in the guise of critique from both mainstream media and social media. Some of those attacks have focused on her government’s commitment to reproductive rights. She has, however, stayed the course.
Around the world, reproductive rights are under attack, even in places like the USA, whose early adoption of legal abortion made it a model for other countries. New Zealand stands in sharp contrast, with a new, reformed abortion law that has improved access to abortion care. With Arden moving on, ALRANZ will increase its efforts to make sure abortion remains safe, legal, and accessible.
We wish PM Ardern the very best in her next endeavours. We feel certain that, given her well-deserved stature on the world stage, she will continue to make the world a better place by espousing the values of kindness, following the science, and knowing your subject far better than your opponents do.