- Daphna Whitmore
A High Court judge has sparked debate about abortion rights in New Zealand. Reviewing the committee that oversees abortions, Justice Miller has announced that many abortions are simply not lawful. His sponsors, the Right to Life organisation, are thrilled to have him championing their cause. It may just turn out that Justice Miller has sent a timely reminder that New Zealand’s abortion laws hark back to the dark ages of Muldoon.
While it may seem that abortions are relatively easy to get, behind the scenes doctors have to stretch the letter of the law to provide a much needed service. Over 98 percent of abortions proceed on the grounds that there is serious danger to the woman’s mental health. (Report of the Abortion Supervisory Committee 2007)
The grounds for abortion are extremely narrow and set out in the Crimes Act. It’s telling that what should be a basic right, or at least a right to a health service, is treated as a crime.
The Crimes Act allows abortion in cases where the pregnancy is causing serious risk to the woman (physical or mental); or that the child would be severely handicapped; or that pregnancy is as a result of incest; or that the mother is severely subnormal mentally. Two medical specialists are required approve the abortion. In other words, most women still do not have full legal rights to abortion.
Prior to the 1970s abortions were mostly a backstreet affair. Then in May 1974 the Auckland Medical Aid Centre opened the first abortion clinic. Four months later the clinic was raided by police and its files seized. The operating doctor was charged with performing unlawful abortions and spent a year defending the charges before being finally acquitted on the grounds that he believed there was a danger to the physical or mental health of the women.
New Zealand’s right-wing and misogynist prime minister of the time, Muldoon, would have happily banned abortions. The Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act of 1977 virtually did that.
With the Auckland Medical Aid Centre closed and anti-abortion legislation in place women had to travel to Australia for abortions. Few could afford this so a nationwide network was set up called Sisters Overseas Service (SOS). They raised funds for airfares and provided support services for women to go to Australia.
Within a few years Muldoon’s restrictive legislation was out of step with the times as more liberal views were gaining ground. By the 1980s the composition of the workforce was changing too. Women were being drawn into work, albeit low paid and part-time roles. The dominant sections of the ruling class no longer wanted to ban abortions, they wanted women available to work at a moment’s notice.
Over time, with enough sympathetic doctors willing to grant abortions, access to services improved. But that doctors must go through a charade and women insist that they are mentally unstable is a disgrace.
What is even more fundamentally wrong is the denial of women’s rights. Abortion should not be a doctor’s choice; it’s a woman’s choice. Labour’s maintenance of the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act of 1977 shows the shallowness of Labour’s social reforms.
It’s time to throw out Muldoon’s law and legislate for abortion as a fundamental right for women.