Fighting to Choose: The Abortion Rights Struggle in New Zealand

By Bryder, Linda | Women's Studies Journal, December 2013 | Go to article overview

Fighting to Choose: The Abortion Rights Struggle in New Zealand


Bryder, Linda, Women's Studies Journal


FIGHTING TO CHOOSE: THE ABORTION RIGHTS STRUGGLE IN NEW ZEALAND Alison McCulloch Wellington, NZ: Victoria University Press, 2013; 339pp ISBN 978 0 86473 886 8

'Abortion is not just about abortion', Alison McCulloch argues in her history of the struggle for women's right to abortion in New Zealand (p. 278). Like the 1970s feminists, for McCull-och the personal is political; the right to abortion is symbolic of women's autonomy. In her acknowledgements she writes that when she became pregnant in her 20s and sought an abortion she was enraged that under New Zealand law she had to show she was mentally unstable in order to get an abortion, and further enraged at having anti-abortionists approach her on her way to the clinic with their signs and comments about killing babies. Her starting point is that abortion should be freely available to all women at all stages of their pregnancy and that it should be their right to choose. She wrote this book with a view to advancing that cause and persuading others to join her, asking 'what can the events of the past tell us about where the struggle might go from here?' (p. 10)

The abortion wars in New Zealand began following the liberalisation of abortion laws in other countries, including Britain, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Three significant lobby groups form the basis of her study: the anti-abortion group the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (Spue) formed in 1970, and two pro-choice groups, the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand (Alranz) formed in 1971 and Women's National Abortion Action Campaign (Wonaac) in 1973. Central to the abortion story in New Zealand were the 1975-77 Commission of Inquiry into Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion, which she analyses in detail; the 1977 Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act; and the 1977 and 1978 Crimes Amendment Acts. Her book traverses the period before and after the passing of these acts. The situation before 1977 was that abortion in New Zealand was illegal unless the life of the mother was at risk. However, the 1938 test case in Britain brought to law by gynaecologist Aleck Bourne, which established mental health as grounds for abortion, also applied to New Zealand. From 1978, abortion was permitted in New Zealand up to twenty weeks following conception to preserve the physical and/or mental health of the woman, and in cases of rape or incest, or if there was a substantial risk that the child, if bom, would be seriously handicapped. The woman had to have the approval of two certifying consultants, one of whom had to be a practising obstetrician or gynaecologist, appointed by a central Abortion Supervisory Committee and overseen by Parliament. By 2012, 98 per cent of abortions appeared under so-called mental health grounds (p. 12).

It could be argued that abortions are now fairly accessible in New Zealand, but McCulloch warns women to remain vigilant in the face of a strong anti-abortion lobby. Does the pro-life movement in New Zealand really have 'tens of thousands of members', as McCulloch reports? (p. 264). She certainly considers it a very real threat, and ponders what kind of world would result from a 'pro-life' victory in the abortion wars, asking: 'Consider the implications if fertilised eggs were given legal and cultural "personhood", if most forms of contraception were banned, if sex education were further curtailed, if gay sex were again outlawed? Is this what an anti-abortion victory looks like?' (p. 276). In her view, it is. She cites a study in the USA that found opposition to abortion linked to "'a conservative approach to matters of traditional morality," that is disapproval [her emphasis] of pre-marital sex, birth control for teenagers, sex education and divorce', adding that 'A similar divide could be found in New Zealand' (p. 205). Thus she presents the threat as undermining modern society as we know it, which is possibly overstating the case.

I learnt a lot from her history, nevertheless. …

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