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An unresolved issue

Tuesday 19th November 2013

A drunken night out, sex with an ex. It's not an unusual story.

But a few weeks later, Katherine (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy) passed out in the street and was admitted to Wellington Hospital. The 23-year-old had a bunch of tests, and when she was examined, staff felt her stomach and told her she “felt full”. She had been to her GP a handful of times for colds and low blood pressure.

She was never tested for pregnancy, nor did her GP offer a pregnancy test, and since she was on hormonal birth control, she didn’t think to ask for it, either. She noticed her stomach was bloated, and took laxatives. 

“After taking them for a few days and it not going away, I took a pregnancy test on a whim and it was positive. I thought it was a false positive so I took like 3 tests before going to the nurse. The university doctors told me I was probably 12 weeks pregnant,” she remembers.

A day later, she found out how far into her pregnancy she was.

At 20 weeks and two days, Katherine was well into her second trimester – she had one day until the legal cut off to have an abortion in New Zealand. A counsellor at Wellington Hospital told her that there wasn’t anything that could be done for her.

But after raising money from friends and family, and finally turning to social media (a plea on Tumblr, which spread throughout Facebook and Twitter), she managed to drum up $7000 dollars for flights to Melbourne, accommodation, and a procedure at one of the only clinics in Australasia that performs abortions up to 24 weeks. She managed to get the money together two days before flying out.

Last year, 14,745 abortions were performed, the lowest number since 1995, continuing a general downward trend.

If this sounds like something out of last century, that’s because it kind of is. The first abortion clinic was opened in 1974, in Auckland, but its work was interrupted by police raids, court cases and closures.  Until the law around abortion was clarified in 1977, some women crossed the ditch to terminate their pregnancies. But today, stories like Katherine's are rare.

Abortion is in the Crimes Act, meaning it is illegal, and carries a penalty of up to 14 years in prison. However, it is allowed in certain circumstances. Two “certifying consultants” have to agree that the pregnancy poses a serious danger to a woman’s life, physical or mental health (or comes from “any form of incest or sexual relations with a guardian, or involves “mental subnormality”, or fetal abnormality.) After 20 weeks, it is only allowed to save the life of the woman or prevent serious permanent injury to her physical or mental health.

Statistics New Zealand says last year, 14,745 abortions were performed, the lowest number since 1995, continuing a general downward trend. About 98 per cent of those were for mental health reasons.

Opponents argue that because doctors have taken a wide interpretation of the “mental health” grounds, New Zealand has de facto abortion on demand. And the law is often challenged.

The issue is also complicated by the fact that in some parts of the country, certifying consultants, and the nearest licensed hospital, are hours away. For example, there are no services in the West Coast or Whanganui districts.

At the same time, those who advocate for abortion rights say that it should be a medical issue, not a criminal one.

And that still causes fierce fighting. In universities, a conversation is happening, one punctuated with the occasional piece of vandalism, by people who disagree. I sat with a small, but committed group in the bowels of the Victoria University student union building. They’re ProLife Victoria, a student-affiliated group. That wants greater restrictions on access to abortion. On the day I met them, they’d been pamphleting campus, drawing chalk signs on the footpath, and holding an information meeting for students. There were nine of them.

These students are a minority amongst their friends. They say they’re careful about who talk to about abortion, because they don’t like being called names. The posters they put up that morning had been pulled down by 11am, and they had to put more up. The discussion on the Facebook page they’ve started makes them fume. Comments like “Whoever came up with this deadbeat campaign are walking advertisements for abortion.”

The aim of the group’s campaign is to get a discussion going about what it calls the “hard ethical questions” around abortion. They want positive and constructive dialogue and meet to talk about ethical positions concerning abortion. They want to talk about fundamentals, not practicalities. In a press release about the campaign, a spokesperson, Mary-Anne Evers, 21, said: “Universities are the place where the big issues and ideas should be debated and challenged. No society ever benefits from stifling, or refusing to engage in open and honest dialogue about important ethical issues.”

Mary-Anne Evers speaks to ProLife Victoria

But Twitter and Facebook blew up over the pamphlets, distributed on several campuses. People criticised phrases such as “If you were demolishing a building, and you weren’t sure whether there were people still inside, would you demolish it? If there is a chance that abortion is the deliberate ending of the life of the life of an innocent human being, then we should err on the side of caution and not permit it.”

The ProLife club at Auckland University has about 500 members, and its president is Amy Blowers, 23. The law and psychology student says the term "ProLife" denotes more than an ethical position. “ProLife is an affirmation of the basic rights of all persons, before and after birth,” she says. “The most heartbreaking for me are the experiences of women who had an abortion and have subsequently suffered from profound grief and depression over the child they lost.” ProLife doesn’t have an official position on law reform, but Blowers would like to see the law change to include mandatory pre-abortion counselling and parental consent for minors.

Dr Morgan Healey, the National President of ALRANZ, which advocates for abortion law reform, is happy to talk to those on the other side of the argument, but she’s not sure there is a middle ground to be reached. “I don’t think any woman makes any choice about reproduction lightly”, she says.

Dr Healey says people don’t always make the best choices, and while there are consequences for that, they shouldn’t be punished. “That is where I get a little bit upset at some of the rhetoric that … is all about shaming, and denying women their bodily autonomy.”

When the law was last looked at in 2010, then Labour Party MP Steve Chadwick looked at a bill that, if passed, would have decriminalised abortion, that died a quiet death. Since then, the issue has been absent from the political agenda. But this year, the Labour Party’s youth wing has been advocating to have abortion law reform included in the party’s policy priorities.

Young Labour president Jessie Lipscombe says part of the struggle was explaining exactly what the law is. “When we started talking about it, with young people around the country, there was this huge, huge response of “What do you mean it’s in the Crimes Act?’” she says.

Some of that could be apathy, the result of the relative ease of access to abortion. But it also seems not to be a political issue. Sean Topham, the president of the Young Nats, says members don’t have a formal position on law reform.  None of the other youth wings responded a request for their policies.

At the Labour Party’s national conference, the remit was amended to look at a review of the law through a Law Commission review – and adopted.

Rachel Wong, 27, a lawyer and Masters student at Otago University, says before any review of the law takes place, independent counselling and parental consent in the current system need to be looked at.

She says the law needs to be tightened to introduce a greater standard of informed consent, and to provide mandatory information about the risks of abortion. “We should definitely be having the conversation. Because of the controversial nature [of abortion], and because it's taboo, we don't have that discourse, and discourse would be helpful from every angle.”

Wong says the recent case of young men in Auckland bragging on social media about having sex with underage girls highlights that there needs to be more discussion and education about all issues about sex. “Young people are given information about contraception that may or may not be accurate, and if it's not, then they’re exposing themselves to pregnancies and STIs, and then possibly, abortion, and then that also all comes into the conversation about how they are educated about sex.” 

Dr Healey says her organisation is trying to create a groundswell of community support for abortion to be taken out of the Crimes Act and made a medical issue. While doctors have taken a “holistic” view of what mental health means, she has heard of many examples of women saying that they felt that they had to cry, or justify themselves in order to be taken seriously.

“That’s what the doctor needed to feel ok ticking off a box,” she says.

ALRANZ members make a commemorative quilt

While abortion numbers are falling generally, they have remained fairly stagnant among Maori and Pacific women. An Anglican minister in Gisborne, the Reverend Christopher Douglas-Huriwai, believes there does need to be a conversation around abortion and access to it, especially in Maoridom. “I think there is a type of tapu around issues of human sexuality and relationships in Maoridom, but I don’t for a second believe that that tapu is an inherent result of the subject matter itself, but is rather an enforced tapu that has been placed on this issue.”

Mr Douglas-Huriwai says young women are often at a loss for cultural direction over issues like abortion. “That means that too often our wahine have to go through this confusing, painful and stressful time alone”, he says.

While he believes that the unborn child has its own wairua, or ‘spirit’, right from conception, abortion isn’t murder.

“I believe for something to be murdered, it must first be living as an independent being. My belief in the duality of life, that is to say Ira Atua (the spiritual aspect) and Ira Tangata (the human aspect) allows me to hold this view. It is a view directly informed by my faith as a Christian. So while I am pro-life, I am also pro-choice.”

“I think if the church and Maori culture were more open about human sexuality, sex and relationships, then we as a people would be in a much better place. I fear that too many young Maori women either rush into an abortion, or don't have the necessary support post-op, and that the end result is a confused and isolated young person. That is a dangerous thing.”

One of the reasons abortion activists want to have more discussion is to make it easier for women who have had terminations to grieve. Nicki Whyte, 29, already had a child when she had an abortion, and says people often aren’t permitted to have feelings about the choice to end a pregnancy, such as grief, without it being named as regret.

“The two are very different. I felt strange afterward, like there was no precedent for my sadness… I decided I was just sending that possible child back to the pool of possible children, ready to head out to someone else who actually wanted them.”

Whyte was a founding member of a group called Mothers for Choice, which she says was formed to counteract groups opposed to abortion claiming they were speaking for families. “There is nothing inherently traumatising about the procedure but it's hard not to feel confused when you're bombarded by the industry that has sprung up around pregnancy and motherhood.”

ProLife Auckland’s Amy Blowers says not every woman is going to suffer adverse physical or mental outcomes from her abortion, but there is a growing awareness, especially among younger people, that abortion is not a quick fix or “just a simple operation”.

“The sad reality is that for many women, abortion is not a real choice at all. It is the only option they have in the situation. No woman should be coerced by circumstances or people in her life into an abortion she doesn't want to undergo.”

But nor, for people like Katherine, should a person be forced into having a baby they don’t want. “I can’t help being real clucky when I see cute babies. I don’t know if it has anything to do with the chance I could have one. If I was 10 years older and in a stable relationship I would have thought about going through with it.

“But at this stage in my life I can’t even support myself, let alone someone else. There was no doubt in my mind that I would not keep it. As soon as I found out I cried and was really upset that I’d probably have to keep it, and no child should be born where they are not wanted.”

Abortion will always be divisive, as it’s highly unlikely that the polarised groups will ever agree. But what many do agree on is the need to keep talking about an issue that just won’t go away.