(Update: Also, check out the opinion piece on this issue from the DomPost by Terry Bellamak.)
By Dr. Morgan Healey
In an opinion piece published in the Dominion Post (4/9/2015), Karl du Fresne said that our abortion laws encourage deceit. While I hate to admit it, this is a sentiment that I can agree with. Unfortunately, this is about as far as our mutual belief extends and I want to spend some time calling out the misconceptions employed in his article before articulating our common opinion.
Firstly, there is no evidence to support that abortion causes any psychological harm. I know both sides of the argument tend to frame abortion as a ‘difficult’ decision and while it may be emotionally difficult for some women it is not for all. (Assuming this is the case belies the fact that the social stigma of abortion often creates that difficulty and acts to reinscribe stigma whenever difficulty is employed.) More importantly, however, the American Psychological Association and the United Kingdom’s National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health, within the Royal College of Psychiatrists, have done extensive research on the causal relationship between abortion and mental health and come up with the following:
• The most reliable predictor of post-abortion mental health problems was having a history of mental health problems before the abortion;
• The factors associated with increased rates of mental health problems for women in the general population following birth and following and abortion were similar; and
• There were some additional factors associated with an increased risk of mental health problems, specifically related to abortion, such as pressure from a partner to have an abortion and negative attitudes towards abortion in general and towards a woman’s personal experience of abortion.
Secondly, du Fresne’s rationale about why politicians will not afford parents the ‘modest’ request of being notified before their daughters’ abortions is simplistic. Yes, to some extent it is about safety. Looking at the rates of family and sexual violence in this country, there are real concerns about safety and limiting coercion both to have an abortion and to continue with an unwanted pregnancy. However, and this is also a key reason that all major medical bodies in Aotearoa support the current law, it acknowledges the young person’s evolving capacity. Setting arbitrary age limits, like over 16 no parental involvement and under 16 parental involvement, assumes that all young people grow up and understand the responsibilities of their decisions uniformly – they don’t. Young people need to learn how to be responsible for themselves so when they transition into greater independence they have the skills and competencies needed for more autonomous living. Our current law recognizes and enables this (which I would add aligns with the Convention of the Rights of the Child, and international bodies like the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Federation of Gyneacology and Obstetrics (FIGO)).
Importantly, while the existing law does not mandate parental involvement, the medical professionals that treat young people still have to get informed consent from their under-16 patients. When a medical professional deems that a person is not competent enough to give informed consent then a parent or guardian can be brought in. The notion that somehow doctors are not already providing informed consent to anyone seeking abortion is spurious and reeks of anti-choice propaganda heralded in the United States, where non-medically trained politicians have become ‘gynoticians’, requiring medical professionals to provide inaccurate information to patients. Du Fresne seems to be advocating for the latter, with politicians being pressured into changing the law based on ideology not medical evidence.
From what I can discern, having been to several of the open hearings over Hillary Kieft’s petition to mandate parental notification, the opposite is true; the Select Committee is trying to take an informed approach to the question of parental involvement by inviting experts in the field to come and give evidence. This has included representatives from the New Zealand Medical Association, New Zealand Association of Counselors, the Abortion Supervisory Committee and a local GP. All of these bodies support the current law.
Given all that I have said, it seems odd that I started this piece saying that I agreed with du Fresne. I do, but our shared belief is fleeting. He states that New Zealand’s ‘abortion law is drenched top to bottom with dishonesty’ based on the fact that women of all ages have to lie that they will be mentally unwell in order to access an abortion. This is completely true (the dishonesty, not the mental unwellness). The law forced 13,000 odd women last year to lie to two certifying consultants that continuing with their pregnancy would cause them some sort of mental distress.
Du Fresne rightly draws attention to how disingenuous this country is about its abortion laws. We are more than happy to disavow a pregnant person’s right to bodily autonomy, while claiming that we care about ‘family rights’. If we really cared about young women in this country we would be fighting so that they, not two certifying consultants, can make their own reproductive decisions (hopefully with the support of a trusted family/whanau member). If we really cared about young people’s sexual and reproductive health we’d make comprehensive sexuality education mandatory and consistently taught across all schools, and access to all types of contraception free and fully funded. If we really cared about young women we’d be fighting for equal pay for equal work and extending paid parental leave to 26 weeks to ensure their equality. If we really cared about young people, we’d be looking at how to tackle the disproportionate rates of incarceration rates for young Māori and discussing the wider implications of colonization on our indigenous population.
Importantly my agreement with du Fresne on the absurdity of our laws does not mean I agree that those who care for young people are encouraging them to lie to their parents. By not divulging certain things about their children to parents, medical and other professionals are working to protect an individual’s right to private and confidential medical care, which all people, including those under-16 should be afforded. We must fight to protect this right because it ensures that young people access the medical care they need – i.e. for sexually transmitted infections, contraception, etc. We risk jeopardizing more than just access to safe abortion when we make parental involvement mandatory.
Unlike du Fresne, I believe that changing the law for under-16s would only make an already bad law worse, particularly for those most vulnerable. And this is the point, parental involvement laws are wedge issues. They are used by the anti-choice contingent to incrementally erode access to abortion. With Bob McCoskrie from Family First proudly beaming at the Select Committee hearing, I can’t help but be suspicious that this is about more than creating and fostering greater communication between young people and their families. This is about controlling women’s bodies more than we already do. And what better place to start then with those who are in the process of becoming independent adults, and with limited opportunities to voice their own perspective.