In the heat of the campaigning for the Republican Primaries, Sandra Fluke, a law student at Georgetown, a well-respected Catholic university in Washington DC, applied to make a submission to the United States House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The committee had convened to discuss whether or not to amend the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which would allow employers to opt out of providing insurance coverage for contraception on religious grounds – in other words, regardless of an employee’s religious belief, their employer can mandate whether or not their insurance will cover access to contraception. In a country where the costs of medicines are largely covered by private insurance arrangements, such an amendment could leave the contraceptive choices of hundreds of thousands of women in the United States to the whims of their employers.
Sandra Fluke was denied the right to testify in front of the all-male committee; however she was able to speak to Democratic members of the House of Representatives a week later. Her speech outlined the prohibitive costs faced by women at her Catholic university if their insurance provider was able to deny female students access to birth control, which she asserted could cost over $3000 over the course of obtaining a degree, as well as the potential health risks, such as untreated polycystic ovary syndrome, that could arise from lack of access to birth control.
Her speech most likely would have failed to be heard above the battle roars of Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, had her position not been picked up by Rush Limbaugh, a conservative “shock jock” and talk-back radio host. On February 29, 2012, he offered this response to Fluke’s speech:
What does it say about the college coed Susan Fluke [sic], who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex…Can you imagine if you’re her parents how proud of Sandra Fluke you would be? Your daughter goes up to a congressional hearing conducted by the Botox-filled Nancy Pelosi and testifies she’s having so much sex she can’t afford her own birth control pills and she agrees that Obama should provide them, or the Pope.
Limbaugh’s commentary would be almost laughable if its hate-filled echoes weren’t reverberating across the Pacific Ocean to affect the rights of New Zealand women to access contraceptives and abortions. In a decision of the High Court of New Zealand in 2008, Right to Life New Zealand Inc v Abortion Supervisory Committee, Justice Miller stated that there was “reason to doubt the lawfulness of many abortions” performed in New Zealand, and that abortion law was being circumvented by doctors giving out abortions without thoroughly abiding by statutory procedures. While this decision was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court in 2011, most of the media coverage of the case related to the earlier judgment, and anti-abortion and contraceptive campaigners still cite the overturned 2008 decision as persuasive authority that New Zealand women’s access to abortion is too liberal and must be tightened.
The Right to Life case is not the only example of New Zealand women’s access to abortion coming before the court system and being dissected by the media. In the 2006 case Zhu v Ministry of Health, a 24-year old Chinese student studying in New Zealand, was sentenced to 20 months imprisonment for supplying the means of procuring an abortion (an offence under section 186 of the Crimes Act 1961) after it was found that she had made 44 sales of abortion-inducing medicines sent to her from China to other Chinese immigrant women in New Zealand. While the case was extensively covered in the New Zealand media, there were few voices questioning why these women did not have access, or feel they could access abortions via the New Zealand healthcare system.
Sandra Fluke’s treatment by the House Committee, and later by Limbaugh and other conservative commentators, demonstrates just how virulently the agenda of denying women access to contraceptives and abortions is propagated by the religious-right of the United States. However, as evidenced by recent media coverage of New Zealand’s abortion laws, it is important that we do not dismiss this commentary as an isolated incident confined to America’s extreme and vocal conservative commentators, but to view the derision of Fluke as part of an effort to erode the hard won right to access abortion and contraception that is taking place in countries all over the world, including in New Zealand.