Thursday 24 March 2011

Reforming The Abortion Laws: A Simple Guide

I don't know how she feels
And I can't know how she feels.
But I want her to know
That I feel for her, oh
I want her to know that I feel.

And I feel so ashamed,
That her life should have been so maimed
By the blindness
That drove her to this, oh
I feel so ashamed.

But his face just curled in contempt.
"Don't sing me your sad lament!"
When she said "I can't cope",
The old man with the stethoscope
Just curled his face in contempt.

And the cold rain fell
On that back street hell.
On the hard table-top
Would the pain never stop
As the cold rain fell.

On a grey afternoon,
In an old waiting-room
He said: "In this circumstance
She's a fifty-fifty chance."
On a grey afternoon.

And I don't know how she feels.
And I can't know how she feels.
But I want her to know
That I feel for her, oh
I want her to know that I feel.

Chris Trotter

(Lyrics to the song performed by Chris Trotter at a pro-choice rally addressed by US feminist, Jessica Starr, Victoria University Student Union, 1974.)

REFORMING CONTROVERSIAL LEGISLATION is a daunting political project. Just how daunting is signalled by the adjective we place before the noun. The presence of the word controversy – literally, “to turn against” – should warn us that what we are dealing with is conflict. And therein lies the reformer’s greatest challenge. Legislating from the starting point of ideological consensus is easy. Passing laws in circumstances of ideological conflict is not only difficult, it's hazardous.

Thirty-five years ago the abortion issue lay at the heart of an ideological conflict that encompassed much more than a woman’s right to determine when and with whom she would bear children. It was the touchstone of second wave feminism. For many active feminists, how far New Zealand was prepared to go in recognising a woman’s right to choose, would be the measure of how far it was prepared to go in recognising women’s rights – full stop.

The legislation which eventually emerged from this conflict, the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act (1977), fell well short of feminist demands. New Zealand’s legislators were unwilling to concede that the termination of a pregnancy was a choice to be made by the woman involved – and by her alone. The CS&A Act did, however, legalise abortion – but only in circumstances where, in the opinion of medical professionals, the continuation of a woman’s pregnancy would endanger her physical and/or mental health.

Even this very limited concession would not have occurred without the mass organisation of pro-choice opinion undertaken by the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand (ALRANZ) and the Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition (WONAAC). These pressure groups, combined with the accumulating moral force of the Working Women’s Charter – then making its torturous way through the trade union movement and the Labour Party – forced the issue of abortion onto the political agenda in a way that made some form of legislative response unavoidable.

The reformers’ successful mass mobilisation of pro-choice sentiment had followed, with Newtonian precision, the emergence in New Zealand of a well organised anti-abortion lobby. The catalyst for this so-called "pro-life" movement had been the successful liberalisation of abortion laws in the UK (1967) and Australia (1969).

Arrayed against the forces of change were a formidable combination of religious and secular opponents. The Catholic Church, in particular, waged an uncompromising struggle against any form of legislative reform. The anti-abortion lobby’s secular wing was the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) established in 1970. Significantly, it drew a large measure of its support from those socially conservative New Zealand women who rejected the feminist project as a direct challenge to their more traditional definitions of womanhood.

In purely electoral terms, it was this latter group which exercised the decisive political influence. The findings of the Royal Commission on Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion, whose conservative report provided the blueprint for the CS&A Act, reflected the fact that in the 1970s, outside the socially liberal milieus of the universities and the leafier suburbs of the larger cities, New Zealand remained a very conservative country.

The liberal/conservative balance on abortion did gradually begin to shift, however, as fresh cohorts of younger New Zealanders joined the electorate. But even in the mid-1980s the forces of conservatism remained a formidable obstacle.

Those who wonder why Labour feminists like Anne Hercus, Fran Wilde and Helen Clark failed to introduce a more liberal abortion regime between 1984 and 1990 need look no further than the series of “Women’s Forums” that the new Women’s Affairs Minister, Anne Hercus, organised in the first few months of the Fourth Labour Government. These were open to all women and were (at least in part) intended to demonstrate to the wider electorate how much support already existed for a substantial advance in the rights of New Zealand women.

What the forums actually showed was how effortlessly conservative women were able to out-organise their liberal sisters. Within weeks of their initiation the forums had degenerated into angry battlegrounds, where reformers and traditionalists traded verbal, and on at least one occasion, physical, blows. When it became clear that the conservative women’s groups had mastered the art of “stacking” the forums with their own supporters, Hercus’s brave experiment in participatory democracy was brought to an ignominious, and for Labour’s feminist MPs, salutary, end.

On the matter of access to abortion services, however, the reformers had the last laugh. While the black letter of the CS&A Act continued to criminalise abortion except in extremis, in practice New Zealand women found obtaining a termination to be a relatively straight-forward exercise. Judged solely by the number of terminations per capita, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish New Zealand from those jurisdictions in which abortion-on-demand is already legislatively entrenched.

Both sides of the argument now face a dilemma. If the pro-choice advocates attempt to completely decriminalise abortion and make it entirely a matter of maternal choice they risk a full-scale mobilisation of the religious and political Right. But, if the pro-life advocates persist in seeking a judicial reversal of the de facto abortion-on-request status-quo, they risk igniting the furious indignation of hundreds-of-thousands of New Zealand women.

Breaking this impasse will be extremely difficult.

As a first step, pro-choice reformers should make a serious effort to ascertain the current balance of pro- and anti-abortion opinion in New Zealand. By serious, I mean offering respondents a plausible set of choices ranging all the way from outright prohibition to abortion-on-demand. They should also be asked how far they’re prepared to go to see their choice enacted. Additional focus-group study of the issue would be helpful in terms of identifying those philosophical arguments and rhetorical tropes which attract, and those which repel, popular support for abortion rights.

Armed with this basic data, the reformers could begin designing an effective pro-choice campaign. (If the polling data reveals overwhelming support for changing the existing legislation in a more liberal direction, then an important component of the organising effort might be a nationwide petition.)

Running parallel to the market research exercise, the reformers should embark on an effort to accurately identify where every Member (and potential Member) of Parliament stands on the abortion issue. Careful note should be taken of the arguments they use to justify their For/Against/Undecided/Won’t Say positions. This sort of research formed an important part of earlier pro-choice campaigns (Ref: Erich Geiringer's SPUC 'Em All! Abortion Politics 1978, Alister Taylor Publishers, 1978).

The best possible time to begin such a campaign would be about two years out from the next scheduled general election. If the reform campaign was designed to reach its crescendo about a year from polling-day the political parties would have both the incentive and the time to develop clear policy on the issue. The reformers could then endorse the party (or parties) whose policies most closely resemble their preferred outcome.

If the reformers’ endorsed party (or parties) won sufficient seats to take office after the election, then the passage of more liberal legislation could proceed smoothly and swiftly within the first six months of the new Government’s three year term.

Just in time for the conservatives to start planning the launch of their own “REPEAL” campaign about six months later.


Unknown said...


Nice photo. Apart from your hair getting darker, and your looking a bit younger now, you haven't changed a bit since 1974.

As you have correctly observed, we effectively have abortion on demand here in New Zealand.

There is a risk to placing a 'convenience' value on human life that affects us all, both those who are born as well as the unborn. I wonder if those who so actively champion for the right to terminate life, realize that in doing so, they undermine their own 'right to life'.

Could our appalling child abuse statistics in New Zealand be linked in anyway to the inevitable devaluing of human life that abortion on demand engenders?

Is the mental trauma of 'termination' greater than giving birth and subsequent adoption? Credible research suggests this to be the case.

What greater gift could a mother give, than a new life, especially if it is given to adoptive parents who are desperate for a child to love in their lives?

What does a truly compassionate response to unwanted pregnancy look like for all parties who are affected?

Surely there has to be more to this discussion than the 'convenience' of the mother.

stef said...

The tipping point will come, my money is on Right to Life finally getting a court judgement the like at which point it is likely to be game on for a law change.

However if the women of New Zealand want a better law then they need to agitate and organize now. It is also not impossible that this agitation and organisation could lead to a law change, victoria decriminalized abortion after a campaign so it is possible.

Oh and Brendan, liberalising abortion laws does not stop women seeking out adoption as an option if this is an option they want. But the point is that you need to put this decision in the hands of the person whose body will face the consequences of whatever decision it is she makes.

I'm little disappointed that pregnancy, giving birth and then giving up a baby is seen as being just a minor 'inconvenience' for you, however I can assure you that for those of us who have experienced an unplanned pregnancy those 'inconveniences' as you put it, are terrifying and have the real potential to ruin lives.

Btw the abortion leads to mental health problems for mothers is fuzzy at best, see the december issue of the new england medical journal.

peterquixote said...

sweet jesus

Anonymous said...

This is something constructive, uses rational arguments, calm language and is not written in a hysterical fashion, with swear words being liberally sprinkled.

Not like Michael Laws or the left's very own version of Michael Laws (Queen of Thorns) at all.

I predict you will get ignored and derided as a dinosaur wifebeater.

Anonymous said...

I've been struggling to understand the anger QoT and her supporters have over this issue when as you rightly point out, for all practical purposes, abortion is largely on demand in NZ, provided you are prepared to confess to mental distress to the doctor.

Then I remembered the 'lingusitic' battles which charactersied the campus environment that encourages young women to find their voices in the Feminist cause.

accepting a label like 'craxy' or 'mentally distressed' or what not, is exactly the sort of label which incensed women as the typical patriarchal put down designed to keep women in their place, to undermine their confidence and to generally prove bad things about the world of men.

so while my practical mind thinks, call me what you want, just sign the form and do the job so I can get beyond this thing, I can now see someone whose early intellectual grounding is rooted in uncovering linguistic determinism taking a completely different view, and thus reacting with such anger against a system that, while notionally restrictive, in practical terms is quite benign.

When I compare with countries where women really do have grounds for genuine anger, such as Poland - which has a legally sanctioned abortion system which is practically prohibited by the attitude of doctors who simply refuse to grant abortion even though the law specifically allows it, I find the agressiveness found amongst NZ women to be quite incomprehensible.

I can only hope they learn to channel their anger into practical democratic politics - which is where the only real change they are seeking will come from.

Shouting loudly only sets folk who could otherwise support your position against you when the time comes to make a choice.

Unknown said...

I have a question for those on the Left who oppose capitalism and champion abortion. Perhaps a reader of this column can answer it for me.

Presumably capitalism is ideologically opposed by the left because the rights of others, usually the weak and the defenseless, are considered to have been violated by the selfishness of the individual.

Abortion on the other hand, (rape and incest excepted) could be considered a supreme act of selfishness and a denial of the rights of others, in that it takes the life of a defenseless human being, simply to improve the circumstances of the woman seeking the abortion.

How is the first act of selfishness considered an unacceptable evil by the left, and the second a desirable human right?

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris
Someone once said to me the difference between being pro-choice and anti-choice was that being pro-choice meant you only thought of the mother, and being anti-choice meant you only thought of the baby.

I think this column is a great example of that!

I wish I knew your view on what feminists should say about the fact that 50% of those terminated are female? And particularly whether you think we should campaign against abortion for sex-selection in places like India and China. If so, what makes it different? Perhaps a follow-up column would be good!

Lew said...

I, for one, won't be deriding this particular offering as dinosaurism. If perhaps a bit stuffy it's a welcome return to constructiveness; of a piece with recent advice to a certain Mr Bradbury and others regarding the real difficulties of enacting real change via democratic means.

Of course, it is a programme for change via mainstream, establishment political vehicles; and in that regard I don't know if it really applies to QoT and the other radicals, whose broader purpose (as I read it) is to apply pressure to those establishment vehicles from without rather than from the driver's seat. But there it is.


Anonymous said...

it is a programme for change via mainstream, establishment political vehicles

It's also an expensive plan. Market research doesn't come cheaply, nor do focus groups and so on. The money to do this isn't going to come from a handful of activists, and you can't really supplement with volunteer enthusiasm - you need some sponsorship, which means mainstream respectability and so on. It's not like the pro-choice movement has a major religion backing them.

A different anonymous

Chris Trotter said...

To: Anonymous@1:51

You're quite correct, Anonymous, professional opinion sampling is very expensive.

But as ALRANZ understood back in the early 1970s - it's vital. It commissioned the National Research Bureau to interview a large sample of NZ women to discover how many illegal abortions were being sought and carried out every year. The results gave the pro-choice movement an unbeatable set of arguments for reform.

Fundraising is part and parcel of serious politics. If the people of New Zealand refuse to stump up the cash for a cause, then that fact, by itself, is of considerable political significance.

There's no easy way to change the world.

Anonymous said...

That being said, it looks like the more prominent figures in the pro-choice movement are a bit more au fait with the state of public opinion surveys than yourself: Frustrating abortion survey out

Frustrating or not, that reads as 44% in support of abortion on demand to me.

The same different anonymous

Anonymous said...

Chris, Thanks for the lesson, but we actually know our history very very well, and understand all the factors, nuances, etc. etc. that you raise in this post. We also know there was something else going on in the 1970s that you are surely aware of, and that was the tendency of adversaries and (some) allies alike to portray pro-choice feminists (e.g. Wonaac) as "fringe extremists" in order to position themselves as fabulous middle of the roaders representing the mythical "middle" NZ. This was damaging and weakened the movement a lot. The movement in 2011 is just as broad as it was in the 1970s, and efforts to pick off bits of it, per above, as I think you too frequently do, and throw them to the wolves is equally destructive. Of course we should discuss tactics or aspects with which we disagree, but if one is an ally with a memory that reaches back to the 70s, surely you know that this can and should be done in a way that is much less destructive than many of your posts. (I found this one less destructive...more condescending I suppose.) Is it that the needs of the blogger (to be provocative in order to get hits and comments) clash with what a genuine political ally would chose to write?
I must correct one fact from your 70s account, though there are several others I'd take issue with. You write: "in the 1970s, outside the socially liberal milieus of the universities and the leafier suburbs of the larger cities, New Zealand remained a very conservative country." If you were to read the chapter on opinion surveys in the Royal Commission report, (and you cite Alranz's work on surveys), you'll see that strong majorities wanted liberalised abortion laws. The fact that the RC unaccountably (but we really do know why) dismissed such overwhelming evidence was written about at the time. Political scientists like Levine and Robinson pointed this out, as well as the fact that their own surveys showed both support for more liberal laws and that Parliament was much more conservative than the populace on abortion (it was also not very representative...overwhelmingly more male, whiter and older than the population). It's a line that's easy to throw around, about middle NZ's conservatism, but in this case, it's not really backed up by the evidence. Yes, I know NZ didn't support the Wonaac position (a woman's right to choose at all stages of pregnancy), but it certainly supported a hugely more liberal regime than the pernicious set of laws we got in 1977. Another thing about opinion surveys is that it's important to "start the conversation" as they say, before rushing out and doing an opinion survey. Which is what the movement is doing. I'm curious as to whether you think the anti-abortion activists (and I see there are some here in the comments thread) could mobilise the kinds of numbers they got out in the 1970s or really if their strength doesn't lie primarily in the moral veto (what Geiringer, after Dalgety, called the 10 percent syndrome) where they can't actually progress their own agenda (except perhaps by hiring expensive lawyers to take court cases) but can scare off people like yourself from ever trying to do anything about it. Alison

Anonymous said...

Beautiful song Chris. Presumably you wrote it for women undergoing abortion. Do you realise it reads equally for the unborn baby? Only she faced a near 100% chance of death in this 'termination', not fifty-fifty.

But I want you to know
That she feels the pain, oh
I want you to know that she feels.

P.S. Nice articulation of democracy. It clearly doesn't impress Alison - democracy apparently being too destructive and condescending.

Anonymous said...

For me it's simple. An unborn developing foetus is not a baby, it's a cluster of cells devoid of any human 'personality', and I don't believe in souls. Sorry but the science speaks for itself. You are all being far too soppy about this. Obviously seeking an abortion within the first trimester is preferable.

I find it interesting that it's almost always men who are so vehemently anti-choice, such as Garth George. Could this be some sort of reflexive evolutionary biological instinct? Could it be that men don't like the idea of women interfering with their ability to 'scatter their seed'?

Unless you are religious or hopelessly irrational, I find it hard to see why abortion is anyone's business except that of the mother and father. And ultimately, it's the woman's body therefore the woman has the casting vote. Being forced to carry an unwanted foetus for 9 months, then go through the pain of labour, followed by the release of massive amounts of oxytocin hormone designed to promote bonding, is not "a mere inconvenience", and it's pretty hard to keep a pregnancy secret from employers, friends and family.

Like it or lump it - abortion has been going on since the days of Ancient Egypt, so women will simply resort to being butchered by backstreet abortionists if you don't give them the legal freedom to do so. Sorry boys, but women are not going to be reduced to the status of a walking womb just to appease your own subjective sense of morality.

Anonymous said...

@ Anon 10:10pm - call me "hopelessly irrational", but I agree with you - "the science speaks for itself." Of course, science tells us that from conception, the foetus is:
- a living biological organism (replicating cells)
- a human organism (human DNA)
- distinct from both mother and father (DNA and usually blood type distinct from those of mother and father)

In other words, the foetus is a living human being distinct from, though dependent on, both parents.

That is completely irrespective of whether you believe the unborn baby (or any human) has a soul, or 'personality' (or sentience).

Obviously, the unborn baby resides in, and is dependent on the mother for nutrients and protection - just as they are after birth for several years. The only distinction there is that the parents can adopt the child out to other adults to care for the baby after she is born.

So yes, being 'forced' to carry her baby to birth is a constraint on the mother. So are other laws that threaten punishment on people who hurt others. We are constrained by law not to drive drunk in case we hurt others.

Once you recognise the foetus is a living human being distinct from both parents (as the science tells us), you recognise the parents have no right to kill this other person (their unborn child) just to avoid the constraints the child's needs intrinsically place on the parents' lives.

The parents can lawfully abandon (through adoption) their child after she is born, if they don't want the constraints that child imposes on them. But parents cannot literally abandon or neglect a born child, let alone kill that child just to avoid the burden that child's needs place on them.

So, scientifically, what is the difference between the born child and the unborn? The only one I see is the unborn child is resident inside her mother, drawing nutrients from mum.

And - aside from rape - the mother has the choice about whether to engage in the activity that can lead to her being 'forced' to carry the baby to birth. That is, mother has free choice to say yes or no to sex - she then has to live with the consequences of her choice, which may be carrying a baby for 9 months.

That is not my 'subjective morality' - that is biology and logic.

Mad Marxist.
P.S. I would be genuinely interested in your answer anon - Chris T and commenters still haven't answered Brendan's question contrasting capitalism and abortion.

Anonymous said...

Workers are people. Zygotes are not people. It can't be simpler than this.

Scott Mackay said...

I likewise find it strange that potential personhood, and the biological continuity of the zygote through to adulthood, wouldn't count for anything.

Alison said...

I am a left-winger. I am a woman. I am not socially conservative. I am also getting very sick and tired of automatically being placed on the male conservative Right because I believe that abortion is a violation of human rights and therefore EVERYBODY'S business.