Politicising social issues: bad for National, bad for everyone

A fracas over 'full-term abortion' claims made by conservative National MPs runs the risk of polarising our political parties towards a US-style culture war, Liam Hehir writes

Until this year New Zealand had a comparatively restrictive abortion regime. The termination of a pregnancy was permitted for health reasons and was a crime if performed otherwise. As with many aspects of our legal arrangements, however, there was a wide difference between the law as it was written and the law as it was practised. 

As of this year, New Zealand now has a rather liberal regime (at least on paper). The law recognises no effective gestational limits on when a termination can occur. After 20 weeks, a doctor needs to sign off on the request after consulting with another health practitioner. There are no objective criteria for such decisions, however, so at all stages it now boils down to an essentially unreviewable decision by the mother and her doctor. 

Whether the law change makes any practical difference in any material sense remains to be seen, of course. In many cases, the law now reflects what had already happened but with fewer contrivances. Which is not to say that the debate did not engender strong feelings. 

In this country, the tradition of so-called "conscience votes” on such issues has generally served to keep party politics out of them. Both National and Labour included large contingents of social liberals and conservatives. Even if the precise mix differed, both parties had an interest in a non-partisan, deliberative approach being taken when it came to the intersection of law and personal morality. 

In recent years, however, that has ceased to be the case for Labour. Increasingly, the party has a coherent and consistent liberalism in such matters. It is almost unthinkable that the party would have a pro-life leader today as it has had in the past (for example Norman Kirk or David Lange). 

National, on the other hand, remains divided. Nineteen of its MPs voted for abortion law reform and 35 voted against. That compares to 37 for and nine against for Labour. 

While one might have thought the debate over that issue was over and done with for now, it has recently flared up. Whanganui MP Harete Hipango, who is pro-life, wrote a Facebook post that was critical of the lack of gestational limits in the new law. Hipango’s precise description was “abortion to full term.” 

Provoking internal strife within National may well result in the party becoming a more doctrinally pro-life party...a foreseeable outcome of that is the stepped-up importation of American culture wars that see delicate issues become party political footballs. 

Pro-choice commentators and MPs quickly seized on this phrasing, arguing it implied that terminations were now being performed at 37 weeks' gestation or later. While the law may technically allow for that, they pointed out, the fact is that very few if any terminations would ever be performed at that stage for a whole host of reasons. 

Government supporters and surrogates online were quick to lay the controversy at the feet of National leader Judith Collins, demanding that she answer for Hipango’s views on the matter. Since her party is a “broad church” in a way that Labour is not, that puts Collins in an awkward position. The fact that the Leader of the Opposition is herself firmly pro-choice makes it even more difficult for her. 

The political advantage in holding Collins accountable for the views of her colleague is, therefore, clear as a bell. Outside the short-term advantage for the Government, however, there may be negative consequences that flow from an increasingly partisan treatment of social issues. 

One risk is polarisation. Provoking internal strife within National may well result in the party becoming a more doctrinally pro-life party. That would give us two big parties with more uniform but opposite views. A foreseeable outcome of that is the stepped-up importation of American culture wars that see delicate issues become party political footballs. 

I don’t think many New Zealanders really want that. Conscience votes are sometimes derided for not being democratic, but we are not a pure democracy and never have been. Giving MPs a free vote on such questions is a compromise that help ensure that sensitive matters are handled in a reflective manner. That won’t be sustained if individual views and attitudes begin to be sheeted home to the wider party. 

It would help, of course, if those dissatisfied with the law reform could be more careful in how they phrase things. Writing as a Roman Catholic, I will be the first to admit there is little stable ground between the views of Hipango and, say, Jacinda Ardern on “life” questions. Taking a strident approach that leaves little room for good faith disagreement is not going to persuade anyone. 

The only thing it is likely to achieve is to reduce the chances of common ground being found. And there’s precious little to begin with.

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