health & science

Dominion Road’s Easter vigil

For the duration of Lent, two groups of people are spending their days outside the Auckland Medical Aid Centre: those who want to see abortion banned in New Zealand, and those who want it made legal.

Every day for 40 days in the lead-up to Easter, two sides of a fraught debate stand dutifully on opposite sides of Dominion Rd.

Each watches the other warily. Those for choice are louder, more colourful; they cheer when cars sound their horns. Across the way, volunteers mutter prayers and engage largely with the pavement.

The abortion clinic on Dominion Rd is a popular site for protest, and it’s not unusual to see pro-life activists stationed outside, holding signs and approaching patients. 40 Days for Life, however, would describe themselves differently. This is not a protest, they insist, but a vigil. A vigil that runs right through Lent, and at which volunteers must spend at least eight hours a day.

Pushing back on the north side of the street are members of an aptly-named 40 Days for Choice, a counter-movement with similar stamina out to show solidarity with a woman’s right to choose.

They treat each other respectfully, but the tension is clear.

40 Days for Life, which is based in the US, says this year boasts its biggest mobilisation of global vigils to date. It also claims to have saved the lives of a suspiciously specific 12,688 babies.

Pro-choice activists scoff at the number, adamant vigils achieve nothing but the stigmatisation and intimidation of women.

We are all familiar with the clash of ideas. What we might not be as familiar with is that New Zealand’s abortion laws come under the 1961 Crimes Act, making the procedure effectively a crime.

Our legislation requires women to secure approval from two physicians who agree that continuing a pregnancy would seriously endanger the woman’s mental or physical health. Doctors wield the power to deny any woman they believe can carry a child to term.

There are no official exemptions for rape.

The implications of this, pro-choice advocates say, include delays in getting approval - pushing women outside of the ‘safe’ nine-week window for a medical abortion.

Recent years have seen calls for an overhaul of the legislation, including a push from the Greens ahead of the 2014 general election to decriminalise the procedure entirely - a policy they continue to stand behind. Even so, the rules remain untouched.

Prime Minister Bill English has said he believes our laws have “stood the test of time” and has no plans to make any changes - likely one of the reasons more New Zealanders seem to be speaking up as the election draws closer.

Ruth Amato from 40 Days for Choice says the 40 Days for Life group has been turning up every Lent for years. In 2014, Amato was walking past the clinic when she saw a woman protesting their presence - alone.

“I just dropped my grocery bags and joined her.”

The counter-movement has grown steadily from there: members now raise money and run a roster to make sure there are people on the street for all 40 days.

They even drop gifts and flowers into the clinic staff, who they believe also feel the effects.

Both sides have come to know each other’s faces. And while attempts are made to talk, and sometimes argue, they largely leave one another alone.

“In past years they have been quite intimidating, which implied what we stood for is shameful. They’ve never been rude … but I find their views very offensive,” Amato says.

However, the 40 Days for Life members want to distance themselves from those who put pressure on, or judge, women who get abortions.

“It is a grave sin … a grave sin … to judge someone else,” says the group’s global chair Matt Britton.

Britton says his movement has worldwide momentum, but this group appears to be small, and mostly quiet. A rogue security guard who takes issue with the pro-choicers mounting a sign on a nearby lamp post reacts with a crass gesture. Vigil members are quick to condemn him.

“That has nothing to do with us. We are here peacefully; we are just here to pray and to offer other options for pregnant women,” says the group’s Auckland coordinator Michael Loretz.

Protesters outside the clinic on Dominion Rd. Photo: Cass Mason 

Loretz says 40 Days for Life isn’t political, but in the same breath says it wants to see changes making New Zealand law more “protective” - to ban abortion entirely. They don’t even want it referred to as a medical procedure, concerned it will be classed as a health care issue instead of a human rights violation.

Terminology is loaded when we talk about abortion. Pro-choice vs anti-abortion, protective vs restrictive, and prayer vs protest. Both sides are particular about which words they use, understandably.

The topic of violence arises when Loretz is asked about a sign across the street which reads: “To demand control over a woman’s body is an act of violence.”

“Abortion is a violent means to solve a problem,” he says. “We’d rather solve that problem than attack a human being.”

Also using Lent as a time to weigh in is the Abortion Law Reform Association New Zealand (ALRANZ).

National President Terry Bellamak says the association is tweeting a “true fact” on each of the 40 days in a campaign it calls 40 Days of Truth. At one time, “true fact” would be considered redundant, but Bellamak’s choice of words is a sobering reflection of our times.

Since March, ALRANZ’s Twitter account has fired off a selection of these truths, including abortion doesn’t give you cancer, and women are 14 times more likely to die from childbirth than safe abortion.

Bellamak says most women believe they will have access to an abortion if they want one, but an average of 200 women are rejected every year because their doctors believe they’re fit to carry to term.

“It’s forcing people into labour, into keeping a pregnancy when they don’t want it.”

One of ALRANZ’s biggest concerns is the way the law forces pregnant women to lie about their mental and physical health in order to end their pregnancy.

Auckland-based performance artist and pro-choice activist Julia Croft experienced this first hand.

“When I had an abortion, I was so nervous … I was basically pretending. Then the doctor said: ‘You know we’re not going to say no.’”

While doctors might be “playing along” under the current laws right now, a cultural shift - like what we’ve seen in the US - could change that in an instant, she says.

Back outside the Dominion Rd clinic, activists have several more weeks ahead - until they wrap up April 9. While the prayer side has had people on site non-stop, the schedule has proven tough for the pro-choice camp. But they’re hanging in there.

“We have a lot of public support although we are still small in numbers,” Amato says.

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