Imagine if the passion and energy being put into attempts to “liberalise” abortion law in New Zealand was instead directed to ensuring real choice and support for women?
This was the question put at the conclusion of a presentation by New Zealand barrister, bioethicist and researcher Rachael Wong at the Forum on the Family at Manukau on July 5. She explored the implications of suggested changes to New Zealand abortion law, in light of law changes that have already happened across the Tasman.
Ms Wong, who is managing director of Sydney-based think tank Women’s Forum Australia, reminded the Manukau audience of the three options proposed by New Zealand’s Law Commission in response to a request from the Minister of Justice to take abortion out of the Crimes Act and make it a health matter.
Option A would have no legal test and would allow abortion up to full term. Option B would impose a statutory test, in that the health practitioner would need to be satisfied that the abortion is appropriate in all the circumstances, having regard to the woman’s physical and mental health and well-being. Option C would have Option A apply up to 22 weeks gestation and Option B beyond that.
Option A already applies in the Australian Capital Territory. Option C applies in Queensland.
Ms Wong said that, over the past decade, great efforts have been made to secure abortion on demand in Australia and there has been a “steady liberalisation of abortion laws across the various states and territories
. . .”. (Abortion laws in Australia are largely determined by the states and territories rather than the Federal Government, and so the grounds on which abortion is permitted vary by jurisdiction, she noted).
Before these moves in various Australian states, “abortion was generally already allowed to preserve a woman’s life or health — although one could argue that abortion is never actually necessary for this”.
“I would say there are three categories of abortion laws in Australia: Laws that have some genuine restrictions and safeguards, laws that pretend to have restrictions and safeguards, but don’t really, and laws that have practically no restrictions or safeguards and don’t even pretend to.”
None of the laws in Australia’s states and territories are quite like New Zealand’s, she noted.
“The reforms being proposed in New Zealand (following on from the recent reforms in Australia) are a radical departure from the current law. Despite the attempt to present a spectrum of reform options [in this country], in reality, all options legislate for abortion at any stage, for any reason and remove safeguards for mother and child,” she said.
Ms Wong spent much of her presentation explaining the implications for women of a law allowing abortion up to full term, for any reason. (She added the caveat that these implications “are not necessarily intended by those trying to reform abortion laws, who, I do believe, have women’s interests at heart, even if they are misguided”.)
Ms Wong listed various risks of physical, psychological and emotional harm to women from abortion.
“Making abortions lawful for social, non-health related reasons also assumes that abortion is an inherently good health option for women, despite the many stories of women who have suffered greatly as a result
of abortion,” she said.
“Abortion is not ‘like any other health procedure’ and to suggest otherwise is incredibly insensitive to all women who have made what is widely accepted to be a profoundly difficult decision.”
She added that she did not want to see women criminalised for having an abortion (and the current New Zealand law does not do so, other than a fine of up to $200 for a woman procuring her own miscarriage (unlawfully), a penalty that Ms Wong believes should be repealed.
The Law Commission noted there have been no convictions for this in New Zealand under current law).
“I believe that there are systemic issues which mean that women are not provided with all the necessary support or information to make a real choice, and due to various pressures, often feel like abortion is their only
choice. I believe that it will generally be counter-productive and unjust to charge women under such desperate circumstances, particularly in light of the suffering that many women also experience after abortion.”
Ms Wong went on to discuss the phenomena of termination of children with disabilities or of children who are not the desired sex; — reasons she described as “discriminatory”. But these would be perfectly legal under an abortion-for-any-reason framework.
She said that “there is evidence that sex selective abortion is already occurring in some parts of Australia”.
“I am not aware of any similar research in New Zealand, but the reality is, that in a system where abortion is available on request for any reason, there is no protection against prenatal sex discrimination and it is by and large females who stand to bear the brunt of discrimination, in keeping with international trends.
This is patently anti-woman and, sadly, many feminists have remained silent on this issue precisely because they believe that speaking out on it could threaten their ‘right to abortion’.”
Ms Wong also noted that advocates of abortion law reform often talk about how greater access to abortion will help women experiencing domestic violence.
“What they fail to mention is that their laws provide no protections for women who are coerced into having abortions, that abortion does not in any way undo or address domestic violence, and that, in the case of women
suffering domestic violence, abortion heaps further violence and trauma upon these women.
“In fact, by making abortion lawful for any reason, the laws remove protections for women against abortion coercion. When abortion is permitted for any reason, women are even more vulnerable to coercion from their partners, family or others.”
Ms Wong concluded her presentation with the comment that: “Instead of simply providing women with the so-called ‘choice’ of abortion on demand, we need to do far more as a society to address the underlying causes and provide them with positive alternatives that are not going to expose them to further harm.
“This includes progressing real alternatives for women facing unplanned pregnancies, and addressing issues of domestic violence, access and affordability of childcare, flexible workplace and study arrangements
and access to pregnancy and counselling support. Any attempt to reform abortion laws should address these issues as a matter of priority.”