Women’s bodies have not been ours for a long time; they are commodified, traumatised, taken as ‘spoils’ during wartime, and sterilized without consent. We bear the sole responsibility of contraception, yet we still cannot decide if and when to terminate a pregnancy. When I think about all the times I’ve had to defend abortion as a women’s rights issue or I’ve tried to talk about it and it’s been tossed aside, put in the ‘too hard’ box, I get mad. I get irate, angry, furious. Because the reality is women must have access to abortions, and they must be trusted to choose when it is appropriate for them to carry a child to term. The claim that life begins with the zygote is scientifically unsubstantiated; the claim that life begins at ‘conception’ is scientifically incorrect and is at best a quasi-spiritual or philosophical belief. Saying you are against abortion and it should be illegal because “it’s my opinion,” is no longer an acceptable answer when the lives and livelihood of thousands of women are at stake. The liberty that activists, nurses at Family Planning, and women like my Grandmother have fought for is choice. ‘Anti-choice’ would therefore be a semantically correct alternative to ‘pro-life’. I am angry. But it is the kind of anger that creates change; a visceral and desperate anger that exists deep inside me and many other women. The fight for reproductive rights is one my Grandmother was a part of, and I’m going to continue the legacy.
In the late 60s my Grandma, a registered nurse, opened one of the first Family Planning clinics in New Zealand. The contraceptive pill was now commercially available and she thought all women should have easy access to it. However, as she found out through Zonta—a working women’s club she was a part of, it was not in fact easy for all women to access. There was no clinic in Auckland’s North Shore, where my Grandma lived, and the drive to the Remuera clinic was either too expensive or time consuming for some. So every Thursday night my Grandma and one other woman, a doctor, would open the doors of an office space and provide women with various kinds of contraception and information about abortions and sexual health. Before 6.00pm both women would rearrange all of the chairs, desks, and boxes of files in the office to make way for their patients, and after 9.00pm they would put everything back again so it could be used in the morning.
They weren’t doing anything illegal, but for some of the female patients obtaining contraception was a clandestine activity. When I ask my Grandma if they ever had to stand up to crazed protesters or policemen she said no, but they did have many women come to the clinic in secret. She informs me that the Roman Catholic Church was still very active when the clinic opened and many women would get contraception without telling their husbands or the church because they wanted to stop having children, but knew it wouldn’t be allowed.
She told me, “I felt like it was a necessity because there was a lot of talk of women who wanted to have normal sex and didn’t want to have a lot of children so I felt like something needed to be done.”
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Her work, and the work of the doctor who operated alongside her, is nothing short of life-changing. I tell her this and she smiles humbly, as if to say “yes, but we also didn’t have a choice.” It’s true that without these doctors and nurses committed to women’s reproductive freedom and health, women would continue to be reduced to vessels, and would have continued to seek out illegal abortions and sometimes there would have been fatalities. This fact is even discussed in the Family Planning charter. The Family Planning Association, formerly known as the Sex Hygiene and Birth Regulation Society, was started by a small group of women who lobbied the government and were motivated by widespread poverty, ill- health, and the fact that many women were resorting to illegal abortion where the death rate of procedures was high.
After I talked to my Grandma about the clinic I asked some more personal questions about what it was like being sexually active before these clinics were set up and when premarital sex was still very much taboo. “We never had any contraceptives like the pill or IUD’s and a lot of us never had any intercourse because we knew there was too much of a risk to get pregnant.” She also informs me that there were never any DIY pregnancy tests when she was younger, which complicates things and further limits women’s sexual autonomy. She said that when the pill became commercially available she tried it but it didn’t work for her. Indeed the first higher-dosage versions of the pill caused side effects that ranged from mild to serious—nausea, vomiting, blood clots, and some women also reported that it made their hair fall out. “I was lucky because I could afford to go to hospital to have my tubes tied,” she says, “but a lot of people couldn’t afford that; they didn’t have that luxury.”
I am also lucky, I was able to afford an IUD. The pill wasn’t suited to my body either, which is why we need to stop acting like getting pregnant by accident is “not good enough.” No contraceptive method is 100% infallible, and to be perfectly frank, the fact that contraception for men to use (besides condoms) has not been made available is not good enough. Sometimes it’s difficult not to see anti-choice activists as simply being anti-sex. Some may consider my words radical, or even violent. But what is truly violent is forcing women to give birth to a child they cannot realistically support, or forcing a woman to carry a child that had died in her womb. The latter actually happened in 2012 in Ireland, and the woman died as a result of complications from the miscarriage. This is but one example and the trauma does not stop there.
Ireland’s abortion laws (which have just been found to be an encroachment on human rights) are slightly more restrictive than New Zealand’s. What is also terrifying is that the decision for a New Zealand woman to access the procedure is not up to the woman but up to two certifying doctors, who must decide that either the woman’s or foetus’ physical health is in danger, her mental health is in danger, or the pregnancy is the result of incestuous sexual relations. Rape is not included in this section of the Crimes Act 1961. Some contest that New Zealand’s abortion law should not be changed because accessing the procedure is relatively easy. Indeed this is what a man from the crowd yelled out during a symposium with feminist, and reproductive rights activist, Gloria Steinem. I think it’s safe to say that most of the crowd were floored by his reaction.
While it may be easy for some, it is still an expensive and time consuming process—I am talking from first-hand experience here. Not all women have the time and resources to find two different doctors that will verify the procedure, and we should not have to feign a mental health concern for not wanting to have a child. All of this makes me angry, and there is a lot to be angry about. But there is also a lot to be hopeful for. Hearing stories like my Grandmother’s and seeing the support from people at pro-choice rallies or anti-choice counter-protests are all things that should give us hope. One day abortion will be legalized and women will be given ultimate freedom over their bodies, but until then we need to keep fighting for it.
It may be quixotic to think that words can change people, but I would like to think that this article will, at the very least, provide reassurance and catharsis to women who have had abortions, who have been denied abortions, who have had to fight for the right to have bodily autonomy, and it is also for the men who have helped us in this arduous, exhausting, and rage-inducing battle.