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Victoria University students are rallying behind a pro-choice campaign in solidarity with the many women who choose to visit Wellington Regional Hospital for pregnancy terminations. This comes as another round of anti-abortion protests kick off outside the hospital, run by the religious group Family Life International.
The internationally funded group is staging peaceful prayer vigils from 8.00am–8.00pm until April 13, in the lead up to Easter. Among other things, Family Life International opposes sex education, contraception, and marriage equality.
A number of pro-choice retaliation protests have been staged by the Wellington Young Feminists Group and the Abortion Law Reform Association New Zealand, with the support of many students, including VUWSA Equity Officer, Chrissy Brown.
Brown says taking part in the protest aligns with her role as equity officer, because it’s about supporting women in making their own decisions. She also says the activist in her wanted to go to the protest, so any women visiting the hospital for an abortion could see the support.
“I don’t think it’s radical to give women the choice to decide if they want to have a baby or not.”
Anti-choice groups are also no longer apart of clubs week, and Brown says this is because they do not represent all students. “If anything, they cause more harm because they believe in something that doesn’t give women the autonomy over their own bodies.”
The pro-choice protest is also sparking conversation around current legislation which holds abortion in the New Zealand Crimes Act. Brown is also weighing in on the law reform debate, saying that the amount of “stupid legal loopholes” women have to navigate in New Zealand to get an abortion is horrendous.
“It leads to more abortions being carried out later rather than sooner, and the sooner the abortion, the better.” Brown adds that women shouldn’t have to lie to get an abortion, and that it needs to be normalised in our world.
According to the Crimes Act, abortion is only legal when two of the country’s 167 specially certified consultants are satisfied the foetus is severely handicapped, a product of incest, or that its birth would endanger the physical or mental health of the mother-to-be. Lacking financial or social resources to raise a child is not considered grounds. Nor is rape, although many would qualify on mental health grounds.
Although 1222 women have been denied an abortion through this system since 2010, Prime Minister John Key says that it “broadly works.”
Family Planning chief executive Jackie Edmond has also criticised the “outdated law,” saying it doesn’t recognise changes in healthcare and is not fit for modern use. “I think it would surprise many New Zealanders to know that abortion is still in the Crimes Act when instead, it should be part of a comprehensive health policy.”
Currently, Edmond says there are no plans to change it in parliament. Parliament has so far ignored a recommendation to review the law from the Convention on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
When asked about the anti-abortion vigils, Edmond says Family Planning respects that everyone has their own views, but they take issue with picketing outside hospitals as it impacts women accessing services. “We believe in choice, the choice to have an abortion or the choice not to. Picketing is just a bit sad really.”
Mary Rainsford and Samah Seger, two Victoria University students also taking part in the pro-choice protest, are reaffirming the right to choice, and the need for law reform. Rainsford, who is studying english literature and criminology, says she is putting herself in the position of someone going to the hospital for a termination. “No matter how strong you are in your belief that it is the right thing to do, the anti-abortion vigils would still be a very difficult thing to be greeted with.”
Speaking on law reform, Rainsford says a woman has the right to control her own reproductive system, and it is imperative to maintain those rights. “There are all sorts of reasons why abortion needs to be readily accessible, and safe. We don’t want to go back to the days of tabletop abortions by any means.”
Seger, who studies law, philosophy, and arts, says from a very basic legal perspective you can’t interfere with people’s bodily autonomy. While she empathises with the religious group, who believe they are doing the right thing, she says forced pregnancy goes well beyond this interference.
Wellington Young Feminists spokesperson, Rachael Wright, says she doesn’t want to make the hospital a battleground, but wants to remind patients they are supported in their decision.