NZ’s chance to go the other way on abortion

This is a watershed moment for women’s reproductive freedom in NZ and an opportunity to overturn 40-year-old laws, writes Liz Beddoe

Women who support reproductive rights in Aotearoa New Zealand are looking on in horror at the restrictive abortion laws being passed at state level in the United States. 

This week Alabama passed what is considered to be the most restrictive legislation, banning abortion except for severe risk to maternal health or a non-viable foetus. Other states are crowing about similar aspirations in the race to the bottom in terms of women’s autonomy over their reproduction. Fears of increasing criminalisation of abortion raise the spectre of women who miscarry being investigated for abortion. For many women the scene unfolding is painfully close to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian Handmaid’s Tale.

Essentially these efforts by 10 states are designed to provoke challenges to the landmark Roe v Wade Supreme Court ruling of 1973 which legalised abortion across the US. Conservative Christians hope to have the chance to overturn this ruling after two Trump-appointed justices have joined the bench.

Flames of anger and fear are whipped up by misinformation, and many abortion services have been at pains to advise women of their rights in this period of uncertainty. The confusion over what these legislative changes mean immediately and in the longer term is deliberate – conservatives hope to frighten women and health professionals away from legal services. 

We have the chance to overturn 40-year-old laws made by a Parliament of mainly old white men about circumstances they would never face.

At the heart of this threatening movement is the desire to control women and to return the US to a patriarchal theocracy. As many commentators have pointed out, it’s not really about caring about babies. Many of these states have appalling infant and maternal mortality rates, health inequalities, child poverty and dire educational disparities. Children have been torn from their parents’ arms and imprisoned in utterly inadequate detention centres. And they have the death penalty. So, it’s okay to take the lives of adults and it’s okay to punish the victims of rape and incest by forcing them to give birth. What matters is that these mainly old, white, rich men get to exert their control of women’s bodies argued on the basis of spurious religious tenets. 

Meanwhile back in Aotearoa we nervously await the outcome of the Law Commission’s recommendations for removing abortion from our Crimes Act. I wrote earlier this year about the options available for cabinet to consider. Most people want the option which leaves the decision to terminate a pregnancy to the pregnant person and would enable self-referral to free and accessible services.

We were told by Minister of Justice Andrew Little that a decision would be announced in April. In the middle of May we have yet to hear that decision. Women are questioning what is happening behind the scenes? What rights are being traded as coalition politics pitting conservative New Zealand First politicians against Labour and the Green Party, both of which have promised reform? Will we yet again see our rights cynically traded for political favours? 

This is a watershed moment for women’s reproductive freedom in Aotearoa. We have the chance to overturn 40-year-old laws made by a Parliament of mainly old white men about circumstances they would never face. Will the Prime Minister stand up to the misinformed, selfish zealots and deliver women a safe legal abortion service as promised?

Women are watching and anything less than this, with protection of patients and health professionals from harassment, will not be forgiven. It’s time Prime Minister. This is the ‘well-being‘ legislation we want.

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