by Gordon Copeland
Back in the 1970’s, following the opening of an abortion clinic in Auckland in defiance of its illegality; abortion became a political and a divisive issue.
At the same time, a new organisation known as Sisters Overseas Service assisted women seeking abortions with passage to Australia, where abortion had become legal in Victoria and NSW. This affected me directly when a young woman on my staff took leave to go to Sydney for an abortion. She was terrified that her father would kill her if he discovered that she was pregnant outside of wedlock. She was inconsolable and my heart went out to her.
In late 1977 the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act was passed by Parliament in an acrimonious conscience vote.
Like everyone else I had to decide which side of the fence I was on. After much thought and prayer I came to the firm conviction that the ending of an innocent life by abortion is wrong. That puts me in the pro-life camp.
However if you were to ask me what I think about a woman who has decided to abort her baby, I would tell you that I have compassion for her. I wonder whether anyone cares for her or whether she is doing this because she feels she has no other option. Where is the father? Although the pregnancy results from the action of the two, not infrequently, it all becomes her fault and she is told to “get rid of it”. It is sometimes said that “she went and got herself pregnant”. Talk about sexist!
Against that background it troubles me deeply when I hear that a young woman’s baby has been aborted without her being given detailed information about the procedure, its consequences and the alternatives. That needs to change.
Some 28 years ago in 1988, the Cartwright Inquiry introduced the requirement that the informed consent of a patient must be freely obtained prior to any and all surgery, but abortion is the one exception since it [informed consent] is not included in the 1977 Act, because at that time no one had heard of it! However it is inexcusable that in the 28 years since the Cartwright Inquiry, Parliament has never bothered to update the Act to include informed consent. That could so easily have done so by a simple amendment.
Such amendments have been made to abortion laws in Germany, France, Belgium, Uruguay and no less than 38 states in the USA. We should follow suit.
A yet more serious issue is coercion. There are now thousands of post-abortion women in New Zealand many of whom seek counselling. I am advised by the women who provide that counselling that many of those women were coerced into aborting their babies. The stories are varied. The pressure to abort can come from the father of the baby (including husbands), family members, and peers or even workmates.
This also needs to come to an end as has happened in the jurisdictions mentioned above, where the woman’s own doctor is now required to verify that she has made the decision to abort of her own free will.
A poll taken by Curia Market Research in March, 2011 recorded 64 per cent support for the question: “Would you support a law change that would require a woman considering an abortion to first see a doctor, who is not an abortion provider, to be informed of the medical risks and alternatives to abortion?”
With that level of support Parliament should make the necessary law changes. It is the humane thing to do, since it places the woman with child at the centre of the process, recognises her autonomy, and ensures that whatever choice she makes is both informed and free of coercion.
It cuts across the pro-life and pro-choice dichotomy to the middle ground of compassion and love. Let’s ensure that this happens after this year’s elections; the 40th anniversary of the present Act.
Gordon Copeland is a former financial administrator of the archdiocese of Wellington and former Member of Parliament. While in Parliament he drafted a bill to require informed and free consent to the abortion process, but it was not drawn for the Members’ Bills Ballot. He is not currently affiliated to any political party.