health & science

Mary and Bill English warn MPs of ‘gruesome’ abortions

Former Prime Minister Bill English has faced questions from MPs around abortion procedures that he says the country could see more of if a law change goes ahead, Dileepa Fonseka reports. 

Bill English and his wife Mary have painted a graphic picture of abortion during a plea to law makers to keep abortion laws as they are.

Currently the law allows a woman to have an abortion if she is able to convince two doctors the birth of the child would put them in physical or mental danger. 

Proposed changes would see that test scrapped for abortions before 20 weeks. Women would also be able to self-refer to an abortion service provider and the state would have the power to set up safe areas around specific abortion facilities on a case-by-case basis. 

“It will be legal to kill that child in the birth canal and the way they do that, if the abortion doesn’t work, is that they put a pin through the base of the skull into the brain,” he said,

The former Prime Minister criticised many of the proposed changes at a select committee hearing on Wednesday but also launched into a fierce defence of the right of medical professionals to conscientiously object to carrying out abortions if the changes were made.

“It will be legal to kill that child in the birth canal and the way they do that, if the abortion doesn’t work, is that they put a pin through the base of the skull into the brain,” he said,

“It is extreme violence that’s what it is, that’s the act.”

English characterises abortions as "extreme violence" to a select committee.

His wife Mary, a doctor, told the committee there could be a greater number of “gruesome” abortions after the legislation was passed. 

“[These] require a lethal injection to an otherwise very alive unborn baby before inducing full labour so as to deliver a dead baby.”

The graphic descriptions of abortion procedures were labelled “scaremongering” by a long-time reproductive rights advocate. 

Status quo best balance, English says

Bill told the committee the current law struck the right balance between the rights of an unborn child to life and the rights of the mother.

“You have the job of deciding when it’s legal to kill that child or put it another way: when does it become murder to kill them?”

Mary termed the proposed changes “radical” and said after the Australian state of Victoria liberalised abortion laws, 304 babies were “born alive” during the abortion process and “left to die in the operating theatre”.

“I think it’s scaremongering and I think that the reality of abortion is very different to what some people imagine.”

She told the committee 71 percent of abortions currently conducted after 14 weeks - under the 20-week threshold - were “gruesome” surgical abortions. 

Mary says the proposed changes to the law around abortions are "radical".

The select committee heard not just the socially conservative 'pro-life' views of Bill and Mary but those of Dame Margaret Sparrow, who has advocated for abortion law reform since the 1970s.

Speaking to media outside the select committee hearing, Sparrow criticised the descriptions of abortions used by English and others:

“I think it’s scaremongering and I think that the reality of abortion is very different to what some people imagine.”

“Even with over 20 week abortions these days in New Zealand, most are medically terminated which is really like having a still-birth.”

Sparrow said difficult abortions often didn’t arise out of choice and instead came about due to medical reasons or a problem with the foetus that might be detected late in the pregnancy. 

“I think creating horror stories is disrespectful to those very few women [who] sadly, often for complicated medical reasons, have to have a termination.”

Dr Jo James, a senior research fellow in obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Auckland said data from the United States illustrated a law change might bring down the number of abortions carried out in the circumstances Bill and Mary described:

“Increasing access to abortions earlier would more likely decrease the number of late abortions.”

Committee pushes back

Select Committee members asked a set of questions around the stigma that graphic representations of abortion might create in the public eye for those who had them.

“There is no one process [for an abortion] even though you might have described it as if there is.”

Jan Logie said they had received a public submission on Tuesday from a family who had ended a pregnancy at 22 weeks and represented 1000 other families who had been through a similar ordeal. 

“[They sent] a clear message to us to do whatever we could to stop the characterisation of their lives as being about frivolous decision-making and putting their situations into a context where they could be characterised as being murderers - which is some of the abuse they’ve had.”

Dame Margaret Sparrow has advocated for changes to abortion laws since the 1970s. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Logie asked English what more he thought the Government could do to support families in that position. 

“There is no one process [for an abortion] even though you might have described it as if there is,” she said.

English said it was the state’s responsibility to support those families, but that it was important to maintain the right of health professionals to conscientiously object to abortion.

David Seymour queried English on whether he condoned the bullying and harassment of the public submitter in question, and asked if the former Prime Minister could “see the connection between continuing to criminalise those women and the treatment that she’s received in this community”.

English said the woman deserved support but he hadn’t heard her submission and did not condone, or see himself as responsible for, the comments made to her.

“I hope you’re not implying that having a view about this bill means having a view about that particular person because it doesn’t actually.”

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