Sunday, August 10, 2008

Guest Column: Abortion: Putting it back on the agenda

By Anita

Once, in staunchly Catholic Guatemala, I was asked if abortion was legal in New Zealand. In my halting Spanish I replied "Si, es legal, es un derecho": yes, it is legal, it is a right. The conversation stayed with me and the next time I had a chance I checked whether abortion was, in fact, the right I thought it was. I was disturbed how large a lie I had told: in New Zealand abortion is not a right — it is not even truly legal.

In 1977, after a divisive hard-fought campaign, a compromise made its way through Parliament. The Crimes Act maintains the original section imposing a penalty of 14 years on anyone who kills an unborn child but subsequent paragraphs now define some kinds of killing as not unlawful. The Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act then went on to create a structure around the control and oversight of abortion.

The key parts of New Zealand’s abortion law are:

  • A limited series of grounds on which an abortion may be "procured": if the pregnancy would endanger the life, or physical or mental health of the woman; a high chance of the child being seriously handicapped; or if the pregnancy is the product of incest.
  • A process which requires a woman to gain approval of two certifying consultants before an abortion.
  • An Abortion Supervisory Committee made up of three political appointees which supervises and controls the process.

For years the ASC and certifying consultants have been interpreting the "mental health" grounds sufficiently broadly that women in New Zealand have effectively had access to abortion on demand. Abortion has not been uniformly available — famously West Coast women have had to visit certifying consultants in Canterbury or Nelson — but abortion on demand has been the norm in New Zealand for many years now.

On the surface we have found the perfect apolitical solution to the controversial issue of abortion. It appears to have removed the visible political hand from the abortion issue for most of the last 30 years; we leave the decisions up to a committee of experts and a couple of hundred certified doctors.

But the political element is as strong as ever; worse still, it is without public input or consultation. Every three years Parliament (in practice Cabinet) decides which three people will make up the ASC and supervise and shape the provision of abortion services. The recommendation is voted through Parliament without public input.

Last year in Parliament two failed amendments were attempted trying to replace the government's status quo nominees with anti-abortion ones. One attempted replacement was a doctor who has worked for an anti-abortion counselling service. The amendment was put forward by Peter Brown (NZ First) and supported by all the NZ First MPs who voted and 21 of the 36 National MPs who voted. His supporters included John Key, Bill English, Tony Ryall and Judith Collins — the four hoping to be Prime Minister, Deputy PM, and Ministers for Health and Social Development. The second attempted replacement put forward by Gordon Copeland gained similar levels of support.

If those amendments had succeeded, they would have restricted access to abortion without public discussion or comment. Restriction of abortion is only a parliamentary vote away.

Abortion is an intensely personal issue, one many of us would hate to see subjected to political and parliamentary drama. Yet the status quo benefits no-one. Whatever your personal position, a political appointment process which excludes public comment is not what we need.

We need to start the conversations and debates, start discussing how we want abortion to be in our country. We need to accept that the personal is political, as the political is personal. I'll be there arguing for the right I once believe existed, and many of you will be arguing against me. Maybe we will find a solution we agree on, and maybe not.

Either way we will have faced the issue and taken control back from a silent political process which can change the abortion rules in under two hours.