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May 10, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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Reproductive rights and wrongs

Salient Editor Sarah Robson talks to Morgan Healey, a member of the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand (ALRANZ) about the debate surrounding abortion law and reproductive rights both in New Zealand and overseas.

What has your involvement been, broadly speaking, in the wider debate about abortion and reproductive rights?

I think my full awareness surrounding the greater need for women’s reproductive rights globally came after I moved to Ireland in 2003. Born and raised in the US, I took for granted Roe vs. Wade and the fact that if I had the means, I could pretty readily access family planning and abortion services. In Ireland, the constitutional right to life of the mother is equated with the right to life of the ‘unborn’ (a term that has yet to be defined), making abortion a criminal offence in most situations. Now technically after the Supreme Court ruling in the X case (1992), when a 14-year-old rape victim was interned within the state and refused permission to travel to the UK for a termination, a woman is allowed an abortion where her physical life is at risk, including the threat of suicide (as X claimed she was suicidal in order to be allowed to travel). However, a woman would go a long way to find a doctor that would risk their professional licence (and who is sympathetic to the woman’s situation) to perform the actual procedure. Thus, most women continue to travel to the UK, and thanks to cheap RyanAir flights, to the Netherlands, Germany and Spain for an abortion.

It was shocking to me that in a country, albeit one based on traditional Catholic beliefs, could in the twenty-first century continue to criminalise and stigmatise women in such a stringent and blatant manner. As a result of this awakening, I became involved in a pro-choice group in Cork—Cork Women’s Right to Choose Group. We campaigned, protested and leafleted on the rights of women to bodily integrity and choice. I also researched the issue as part of my doctoral research on Irish women politicians and their engagement with feminist issues, using abortion as a litmus test.

Together, these experiences instilled in me the need for a holistic approach to reproductive rights and abortion. By this I mean that sexual and reproductive rights do not begin and end with abortion, but need to take into account the gamut of women’s sexual and reproductive health needs throughout their life cycle—sexual education, contraception, maternal health, abortion, cervical screenings and vaccinations, et cetera.

What is ALRANZ and what does ALRANZ want to achieve? What do New Zealand’s abortion laws currently say, and what are the implications of the legislation for women wanting an abortion?

ALRANZ stands for the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand. As a group we are dedicated to decriminalising abortion and improving the medical practices that surround this procedure. There are several goals inherent within this statement. Primarily, we argue that abortion should neither be considered a criminal offense nor legislated for within the Crimes Act 1961. I think most women in New Zealand would be shocked to discover, as I was when I moved here, that there are only four grounds for a legal abortion up to 20 weeks’ gestation (after 20 weeks the grounds are more strict): when the physical health of the woman is endangered; when a woman has become pregnant as a result of incest; a severe foetal abnormality; and in instances of [harm to] mental health. According to Statistics New Zealand, 98 per cent of abortions fall under the latter category of [harm to] mental health. This has also been commented on by Justice Miller as part of the Right to Life v. Abortion Supervisory Committee case (which is waiting to be heard in the Appeals Court in October 2010), where he queried the legality of abortions being performed and the certifying consultant’s liberal interpretations of the law.

Firstly, this means that New Zealand women who need or want an abortion for any reason must fall under one of the four headings above. This does not include sexual violence or rape, although that will be taken into consideration. The ongoing court case throws this into relief, showing how inconsistently the law is being applied and how much more restrictive it could be.

Secondly, the process is inequitable in terms of availability and accessibility, and [is] also convoluted. Specifically, the process entails that the woman first visits her GP, before being referred on to two certifying consultants who determine the legitimacy of the woman’s claim under the four grounds. If one of the certifying consultants disagrees then the woman is referred on to a third consultant, whose opinion is meant to be final. ALRANZ asserts that not only does this not follow best medical practice, but it is also unnecessarily complicated, erecting barriers to good health care and further disadvantaging already vulnerable women.

I think aside from these facts, the underlying message is that women are not to be trusted to make choices surrounding their own bodies. Personally, I find this repugnant.

What are some of the problems with the current legislation?

The current abortion law is legislated for in the Crimes Act, which I just mentioned, in tangent with the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977 (CS&A). The CS&A sets out the remit of the Abortion Supervisory Committee and the process of the certifying consultants. Virtually, it was a bad law to begin with, cobbled together based on a need to find some consensus. There has been a noticeable lack of political will to engage with the issue again, and as a result a bad law has been allowed to fester.

These laws were also put in place at a time when only surgical abortions were available to women. Now with advent of medical abortions, women can take two pills—one an antiprogestin and the other a prostaglandin—[at] up to eight weeks’ gestation and remain in the privacy of their own homes if they choose. However, the CS&A does not reflect such changes and is written primarily for surgical ones. I think it is important to note that while Family Planning has applied for a licence to perform medical abortions, they would still have to follow the legal rules outlined above. The woman would still have to go through the certifying consultant procedure, the pills would still have to be administered in a registered medical facility and women would still have to meet one of the four grounds.

Another serious fault with the legislation continues to be the lack of consideration for circumstances outside the four restricted grounds. For example: what happens when a woman, who is taking some form of contraception, gets pregnant as a result of contraceptive failure? Is she to be punished for responsibly engaging in sexual activity? And if she is, then how long are we going to tolerate the underlying assumption that women are not supposed to be sexual creatures (i.e. the virgin/whore dualism), and just merely seen as physical and culture reproducers? Personally, as a woman, I want to be determined by more than my ability to reproduce.

Why is ALRANZ advocating for legislative reform to guarantee women access to safe, legal abortions?

ALRANZ firmly believes that it should be a woman’s choice. The current abortion law is not even close to meeting that standard. It continues to criminalise women for their reproductive choices (and by extension their sexual choices) and sends out the message that women are not to be trusted with making decisions relating to their bodies. I find that rather hypocritical, given we are supposed to trust women as mothers to this unborn/foetal life, yet we do not trust them to say, “Wait, I am not prepared for or I am unable to care for another person at this moment in my life.” Isn’t that the more responsible decision? Shouldn’t the ability to make hard decisions also engender trust?

Are there any countries where ‘liberal’ abortion legislation has been introduced?

Many countries, including Canada, Spain, Portugal, the UK and the Netherlands, have fairly liberal abortion laws. In the main, the flood gates have not opened up and women are not racing to have abortions just because they can. That is an argument made against liberalisation in Ireland—all women will be doing it if allowed! Usually, liberalisation makes the procedure safer and perhaps less stressful for the woman herself, given that she might not have to jump through hoops to prove her need for the abortion. Again the focus here is trying to ease the distress of the woman involved and making sure she gets the best medical care possible.

Are there any examples of countries or states where more restrictive abortion legislation has been introduced, and to what effect?

I think this is an important question, mainly because New Zealand women have been ‘lucky’ (and I say that lightly) to date that more certifying consultants have taken such a liberal view of the law. Living in Ireland, I saw the rancor and vitriol that accompanies most abortion-related discussions. Yet, the voices that you never hear are the women themselves. Lots of the women that are forced to travel for an abortion have never left Ireland. And for the Salient readers who have been to London and ridden on the Tube, it can be an overwhelming experience for the everyday commuters. Can you imagine being pregnant, probably having to take time off from work under the guise of some excuse, getting on a plane for the first time and then being faced with having to navigate the London underground? Doctors are not allowed to make appointments for Irish women, so they must contact a clinic and make all the arrangements for themselves…Often Irish women are later on in their pregnancies when they do present themselves at the clinic, given the time it takes to raise the necessary funds and getting the time off from work. If the woman gives an Irish address, she will be given antibiotics as standard procedure, as they realise that the woman will not seek after-care once back in Ireland. I got an email the other day appealing for funds for a woman who had her travel/abortion plans disrupted as a result of the Icelandic volcano. She did not have the funds to reschedule the trip over again! Can you imagine the stress and anxiety of that—not knowing if you will have the means of getting the care you so desperately need?

This is what a more restrictive abortion regime looks like—silence, recrimination and the feeling of being disowned from your country. Abortion is often referred to as “an Irish solution to an Irish problem”. In other words, they export that which might disrupt or transgress the Irish cultural imaginary—a rural, traditional, Catholic culture. But what does it mean for these women? What burdens do they live with as a result of being treated so atrociously? And why is the right to life of the unborn more valuable than the right to bodily integrity and autonomy of these women?

I have a great background on my computer. It states: 77 per cent of anti-abortion leader are men. 100 per cent of them will never be pregnant. I don’t believe anyone has the right to tell me what I can or cannot do with my own body. I respect those who disagree, but they have the choice not to have that procedure if they find it immoral. I would not have any or very limited reproductive choices if the pro-life side had their way. Why do they get to choose for the rest of us?

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Editor for 2010, politics nerd, panda fan and three-time award-winning student journalist.

Comments (3)

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  1. Ken says:

    I fully support the right of the Abortion Law Reform Association [ALRANZ]to express its views on abortion. It should be known however that this Association does not truly represent the views of women in New Zealand and has according to Dr Margaret Sparrow, the national president, a membership of about 200 members. It thus has little support from women in New Zealand. In contrast the pro-life movement in New Zealand has tens of thousands of members. ALRANZ claims that the current legislation governing abortion is bad law and was a political compromise, this is incorrect. It should be known that the killing of an unborn child is a crime in New Zealand as laid out in the crimes Act 1961, under the part of the Act headed “Crimes against the person.” This provides a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison for the crime of unlawfully using any instrument, drug or thing with intent to procure miscarriage of any woman or girl whether she is pregnant or not. The Contraception Sterilisation and Abortion Act provides for the circumstances and procedures under which abortions may be authorised “after having full regard for the rights of the unborn child,” The Crimes Act section 187A merely provides permission to kill an unborn child under rare and serious reasons. The Act states that if the doctor has honest belief in authorising an abortion on one of the grounds listed that he will not be prosecuted. It was stated by Dr Christine Forster, a previous chairperson of the Abortion Supervisory Committee to a Parliamentary select committee in 1995 “that certifying consultants were using mental health as a ground to provide abortion on demand,”this is unlawful. 98% of abortions in New Zealand are authorised on mental health grounds. It should also be known that the Labour government in 1975 appointed a Royal Commission on Contraception Sterilisation and Abortion to advise the government on the question of abortion law. The Commission heard evidence from many local and overseas medical and legal experts. The Commission found that “The unborn child, as one of the weakest and most defenceless forms of humanity, should receive protection,” It accepted the biological evidence establishing that life begins at conception. The Commission therefore found that the child from implantation has a status which entitles it to preservation and protection. From implantation to birth, the report to parliament in 1977 stated, changes in the unborn child are of a developmental nature only. The Commission said that the right to life is a sacred principle of civilisation.’it is an indispensable guarantee of the individual worth of the persons within it. Its universal denial would threaten civilisation and would fail to recognise the dignity of man.” The government in passing the CS&A Act and amending the Crimes Act faithfully enacted the legislative measures recommended by the Commission. The advocacy of ALRANZ for the decriminalising of abortion should be resisted by all who uphold the sanctity of life of every member of the human family. It would mean that it is no longer a crime to kill an unborn child at any stage up to birth. It would be a denial of the human rights of the unborn child, would be demeaning to women.and a rejection of the duty that the state has a duty in protecting the lives of its future citizens. The authentic feminist position is to uphold the dignity of women and to protect the lives of their children, born and unborn.

  2. Stella says:

    “For example: what happens when a woman, who is taking some form of contraception, gets pregnant as a result of contraceptive failure? Is she to be punished for responsibly engaging in sexual activity?”

    Isn’t it sad that Morgan Healey regards babies as a “punishment”. The reality is contraceptives are NOT 100% effective something that DOCTOR Healey should be aware of. Both women and men who do not want to take the risk of becoming mothers and fathers should take this into consideration before engaging in sexual activity.

    “Shouldn’t the ability to make hard decisions also engender trust?” Do you also say that about men who want their partners or teenage daughters to have an abortion? What about doctors who advise women to have abortions because of foetal abnormality? The reality is women have trusted other people who seem to be able to make difficult decisions, only to regret it later on.

    Freely available abortion equals more pressure to abort even if the pregnant woman’s own inclination is to give birth. Abortion is not “care”. When a woman is pregnant there are at least two patients, both with an equal right to life.

    None of us would be here if our lives had been cut short in the womb, whether accidentally or intentionally. The fact that earlier abortions are preferred by abortion advocates is because the baby in the womb is GROWING. Try putting these women on a nine month waiting list and then ask how many regret the birth of their child? Chances are those who regret having their baby would be in the minority.

  3. Rex Hydro says:

    Nonsense. I have one suggestion: the ‘Space Cock’. This is where the subject excretes into a plastic bag, places the plastic bag into a freezer, freezes said contents, removes frozen excretion, inserts excretion into chosen orifice repeatedly until desired result is reached. There is absolutely no way of getting pregnant by doing this, trust me.

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