As you read please bear in mind that I was writing it to speak to the slides (which I've inserted as pics above the section of the speech that goes with them), and also that I've never done that before.
What I’m going to do with this talk is basically look at why we need abortion, why we have it now, through thinking about what our society would need to be like to not need abortion anymore.
My aim is to outline to you an argument based on the idea that abortion is necessary to enable women to have control over their own bodies and over their own fertility.
And from there, to point out that the best way to do this is to ensure we have safe, legal abortion available at the choice of the woman concerned.
A world without abortion will only be possible when we can have full control of our fertility.
Think about that for a second.
What would full control of our fertility mean? What would our lives be like if we could have that?
I’m not talking about being able to control our sexual desires. In my experience actually people can do that now. Sometimes they choose not to, but that’s not really being out of control, because the choice is still there and still made.
Let me tell you what I think having full control of our fertility would be like, what that world would be like.
It would be a world with no rape.
You may think, as I once did, that pregnancies resulting from rape are biologically unlikely. When I was at university I still believed what my sewing teacher told me, that the female body couldn’t conceive from rape because it wasn’t ready. It’s simply not true.
As I’ve got older and heard the secrets that women share with each other as they age and as they become mothers, I’ve learnt of women who have had the awful experience of not only being raped, but then discovering they are pregnant as a result.
To not only have control of your body stripped from you by a rapist, but to then also be pregnant against your will, seems to me a monstrous thing to have to deal with.
So in order to have control over our fertility we need a world without rape.
We also need 100% effective contraception, that’s freely available.
No form of contraception is currently 100% effective.
And some of the most highly effective forms of contraception available in NZ, including Mirena (0.2% failure) and long-acting implants (1% failure), are not yet subsidised by Government.
People will talk about abstinence being 100% effective, but it’s not really contraception is it?
People are going to have sex.
We’re going to have sex for reasons other than pro-creation, and some of that sex will be heterosexual. So we need contraception.
We need it to be
- Easy to get
- Comfortable to request and use
- And effective.
Maybe if contraception was better, cheaper and not treated like a dirty secret, some of those pregnancies wouldn’t have happen.
Certainly women would have more control over their fertility which has to be a good thing.
Another important component of a world where we have full control of our fertility, is that we all benefit from positive empowering attitudes to sex.
Imagine if sex education started young, younger than sexual activity starts, and it encouraged a positive attitude to sex.
Sex ed that taught people they can say no, that they should consciously seek yes, and that it’s totally a turn-on to say “I’m in to this, are you?” and be prepared to stop whenever you or your partner (or partners) want to.
We’d need to do a lot of remedial work with adults too, because most of us haven’t grown up with that kind of sex education, or indeed that kind of understanding of relationships more broadly.
Many of us, in particular women, don’t feel that we have absolute agency in our lives, so it’s going to take a fair bit of work to change our society to meet this one.
We’d probably need to have a think about media, advertising, the way women and men and sex are portrayed in our cultures.
But that’s a topic no doubt we could all discuss for the rest of this talk.
This might seem like a strange thing to raise in a talk about abortion, but we’d also need a world where parents were respected and supported.
There’s a perception out there that most of the women who have terminations are childless.
The stats tell another story, as you can see from this graph. These figures are from 2009, and looking back at the figures from 2000 onwards the trend is the same.
Just over half of all women seeking abortions are already mothers. It may be that some have gone the adoption route, we don’t know because those stats aren’t kept.
The stats actually go up to 7 or more previous live births, but I’ve lumped together the 5 and over for the sake of this graph.
I think there are possibly some sad individual stories in these stats, and it’s one of the reasons I wanted to start this talk by thinking about what a world without abortion would need to be like.
Because in these stats was a woman aged 15-19 who had had four live births, prior to the abortion she had in 2009. There were 7 other women, in the same age group, not even 20 yet, who had had three children already.
And there was a woman in the 20-24 bracket who had had 7 or more previous live births. Most in this room will be under 25. Can you imagine what your life might be like if you had had 7, or more, children by now?
I think there are some stories in there, I have no doubt, about women, and girls, with limited choices about their bodies and their lives. And some of those limitations will be bound by the way we support people as parents and children.
In a society where parents and their children are supported and respected, by others in their lives, by our social institutions, and by our governments, then perhaps everyone would have the resources to become parents, or to grow their families, when the opportunity arose.
I’m talking about being able to be sure, when that little stick shows you you’re pregnant, that any child that arises could have a safe, healthy home to live in, would have more than enough food and clothing and books and love, and so much more, from the people and the society around it.
To achieve this one we would need to think hard about our housing policy, our social welfare system, the nature of work in our economy, as well as our health and education systems.
It’s a biggie.
This is the last one I came up with, to achieve a world where we have full control over our fertility. It’s probably the hardest, because all pregnancies healthy and viable just doesn’t seem possible with our mortal bodies.
Because the grounds for having an abortion are so out-dated it’s basically impossible to work out how many abortions are the result of embryos or fetuses that are non-viable, highly likely to live short, painful lives after birth if they make it that far at all. I think we need to show compassion for women who make that choice.
Their pregnancies may well be planned, and dearly wanted, until the point where the bad news becomes clear. Some will choose to continue, to see what happens, and they should be able to make that choice.
For those who choose a termination in the face of the odds, in the face of probably adding a very sick child with high needs to their family when they may not have the resources to support them, they have my sympathy. What they don’t need, what they really don’t need, are people standing outside abortion clinics yelling at women who go in and holding up doctored pictures of aborted fetuses. That’s not what compassion looks like.
There’s an assumption that women who’ve had multiple abortions are sluts who are too lazy to take the Pill.
I suspect that in fact many of those who’ve had several abortions, and you can see from the graph that they are actually pretty rare, are those who have gone through the hope and loss cycle several times.
Maybe they have genetic abnormalities in the family or maybe they have an oddly shaped cervix. Maybe they’ve gone full term with a known fetal abnormality in the past and can’t face that again. Maybe they know that they won’t survive any further pregnancies.
There are many reasons why a woman might seek a termination, and we should trust women and respect them to make that choice, regardless of whether they’ve had to make it before too.
A world without abortion will only be possible when we can have full control of our fertility.
That’s a world with:
- No rape
- 100% effective contraception that’s freely available
- Positive empowering attitudes to sex
- Support and respect for parents
- And 100% of pregnancies healthy and viable
A little more on unwanted pregnancies. And I acknowledge that “unwanted” is a harsh word, and I’m open to suggestions for a better term to use. I’m aware that language is important in this discussion, and is often used to demonise women and raise fetuses to sainthood, so I’d appreciate some feedback on that at the end please.
In the debate about adding folic acid to bread there was a statistic quoted often which really stuck for me – that around half of all pregnancies are unplanned.
That’s a huge proportion, a massive number, which again reinforces my earlier points about giving people control of their fertility.
Of course unplanned can become wanted, and obviously many many of those unplanned pregnancies do go ahead, because otherwise the number of abortions each year would be more like 40,000, rather than under 20,000.
I know plenty of women who have, with partners or without, decided to go ahead with a pregnancy that wasn’t in their original thinking, and I’m sure there are women in this room who have made that choice.
They have my respect. The cost of a pregnancy and birth and raising a child is considerably greater than having an abortion.
And as I’ve already pointed out, in relation to pregnancies that aren’t healthy or viable, planned can unfortunately become unwanted too.
Situations can change outside the womb as well. Relationships break up, jobs are lost, health problems for the pregnant woman become overwhelming.
So we can conclude that unwanted pregnancies will happen for the forseeable future.
And while there are unwanted pregnancies there will be abortions.
There have always been abortions.
They just haven’t always been safe or legal, or counted.
- Drinking copious amounts of gin,
- having scalding hot bathes,
- falling down stairs,
- taking herbal concoctions,
- surgery at the hands of backstreet abortionists,
- using a coathanger on yourself
Sadly there are parts of the world, and I suspect parts of our own country, where this is still the case today, despite the fact that we have a number of very safe medical and surgical options available.
We don’t yet live in a world where we have full control of our fertility.
Unwanted pregnancies will happen.
So we’re faced with how we deal with those unwanted pregnancies – as individuals and as a society.
I believe that abortion is necessary. I believe that holding a pro-choice position, allowing the woman concerned to choose whether or not to continue her pregnancy, is the ethical, indeed the moral, approach.
Who else can make that decision?
Who else has a better understanding of her circumstances?
Who else has to live with the consequences?
And who else should control her body?
The current law is over 30 years old. While it allows safe and legal abortion to happen, it is not pro-choice.
It is in fact quite heavily restrictive, in terms of the letter of the law itself. It was seen as so restrictive at the time that none of the 4 women in Parliament voted for it, and in fact over 300,000 NZers signed a petition seeking to repeal it. To put that in context, it was signed by around 10% of the total population at the time, in a period of only 13 weeks. They wanted repeal not because the law was too liberal but because it was too restrictive.
Why is the current law not pro-choice?
A woman seeking a termination needs permission from others, namely 2 certifying consultants. This is not treating women as adults in control of their own bodies.
It doesn’t allow the person most affected by the decision, the woman concerned, to make that decision. The 2 certifying consultants will not have to actually have the abortion, and will not have to deal with the consequences. They cannot possibly fully know or understand the circumstances of the woman seeking the termination, certainly not as well as she can. And they will not have to deal with the consequences of that decision at all.
Not only must the woman concerned get permission from other people to control her own body, she has to convince those 2 other people that the pregnancy would be a risk to her physical or mental health.
Risk to physical or mental health does not cover all of the reasons why a woman might seek a termination, far from it. It starts from the default position that continuing the pregnancy is always the best option, and it’s necessary to prove otherwise. There are a whole lot of reasons why having a child, or adding to your family, might not be a good idea for a woman, not least lacking the resources to support that child.
But the law says only risk to physical or mental health.*
So each year thousands of women end up in the invidious position of having to show that a pregnancy is a risk to their mental health at the same time as they prove they are rational enough to be giving informed consent to a termination. A friend of mine referred to this as “having to cry twice”. Because of course you have to convince two people, who don’t have to go through the procedure and don’t have to deal with the consequences, that you are just fragile enough to be at risk, but simultaneously strong enough to be able to seek an abortion.
All of this creates hoops for women to jump through.
Which in turn create time delays, and from there what could be simple medical abortions in the first trimester become more complicated surgical abortions in the second trimester, and so on.
This is not a law that treats women as moral adults, and it is not a law that makes medical sense either.
What would a pro-choice law look like?
Some of you may have heard that a Labour backbench MP, and former midwife, Steve Chadwick, has been working on a possible law change.
While we don’t know the precise details yet, what we do know sounds like a significant shift in the law, which would provide for:
- abortion available on demand (i.e. woman concerned decides) to 24 weeks
- abortion with medial practitioner’s support after 24 weeks when appropriate
- decriminalising abortion by removing it from the Crimes Act
- regulating health practitioners involved in terminations
- and importantly, health practitioners who have conscientious objection to abortion would have to inform women they can access abortion from elsewhere
I’m open-minded about the 24 weeks issue myself, and would be very interested to see debate around that in a Select Committee process. It’s really easy to get bogged down in the 24 weeks aspect, when actually what we need is a law that shifts the decision-making firmly to the woman concerned, and Chadwick’s proposal looks a lot more like that than what we have now.
Abortion law reform needs to happen. It has needed to happen for over thirty years. I believe that the majority of New Zealanders support a woman’s right to choose, and would support a change to the law to reflect that. I hope to work together with many of you in this room in the near future to make that change.
We’ve seen a lot of successful social law changes in the last three decades, which have been part of positive social change.
Thirty two years ago, when the current law on abortion was passed,
- homosexuality was illegal,
- smacking was seen as a desirable parenting practice,
- sex workers were criminals with no protections
- and raping your wife was totally fine and dandy.
Comments on this post should be focused on the points made in the presentation. I.e. not going down the fetus/embryo personhood debate yet again. Off topic comments are likely to be deleted.
* The grounds in the law are a bit more complex than this, but in my reading that's what it boils down to.