Dr Bryce Edwards
Politicians are finally having to face up to the unresolved abortion question. As the last column pointed out – Should abortion be decriminalised? – the law around abortion is suddenly back on the agenda, following decades of a kind of uncomfortable truce. This was based on an unofficial compromise in which the legal framework for abortion has been restrictive in law but relatively liberal in practice.
Most politicians are able to live with compromises, even if they can result in rather messy and farcical situations. But it now appears that the abortion compromise might be falling apart. This will be very uncomfortable for many politicians. Even those who are personally comfortable with more liberal abortion laws will be aware of the potential can of worms that is opened by a renewed debate and investigation into abortion laws. And other politicians will also see the opportunity that such a debate might afford for their own electoral advantage.
Why is abortion back on the agenda?
Abortion politics haven’t been a big part of public debate for decades. But recently there has been a resurgence in debate about New Zealand’s law on these matters.
Part of the reason questions around abortion laws have gained prominence this week is because the Abortion Supervisory Committee (ASC) – which is the state institution that oversees abortion practices – had to present its annual report to Parliament’s justice and electoral committee yesterday.
This is covered best in Nicholas Jones’ article, Not updating abortion law 'an indictment', supervising committee tells MPs. It seems that this year the ASC is requesting that politicians update the legislation, especially in terms of modernising the language – which has been deemed “offensive” and “sexist” – and health practices that it refers to.
Although the ASC is not calling for any sort of significant overhaul of the laws – as this is not for the committee to have a view on – others are taking the opportunity to raise questions about the need for greater reform. As Karl du Fresne argues today, “Abortion rights activists took the [ASC] report as the cue to mount a fresh campaign for liberalisation of the law, as the committee surely must have known they would” – see: The minefield that is abortion law.
Mr Du Fresne suggests “In truth, the renewed debate is about much more than semantics. Complaints about sexist language are a smokescreen, because merely making the act gender-neutral wouldn't achieve the activists' objective. When they talk about "reviewing" the legislation, what they really mean is rewriting it to make abortion available on request – their goal since the 1970s. The committee has obligingly opened the door a crack and the abortion rights lobby has jammed its foot into the gap, as the committee possibly intended.”
Another part of the explanation for abortion coming back onto the public agenda is the ascent of Bill English to the top office. Given his history of anti-abortion views, English’s political opponents and pro-choice campaigners have begun asking questions on what he might do in terms of this moral issue. Part of this is clearly opportunistic for opponents like Labour, who can see that Mr English is vulnerable on the issue because his view is a minority one. Labour leader Andrew Little is doing all he can to continuously label English as “deeply conservative.” This, Labour surely hopes, is a way of breaking more liberal floating voters off from voting National.
Another reason for the radical return of abortion law reform demands is the resurgence of feminism and gender politics, as discussed in columns last week: Should MPs be feminists?, and The state of feminism in 2017.
Yet even when the feminist movement was in more buoyant health – in the 1980s and 1990s – it was not particularly concerned with abortion law reform. Feminism’s focus shifted into other areas of concern – whether it was issues of sexism, body image, or pornography.
We are now clearly living in more radical times. All over the world, we are seeing the “big questions” coming back on to the agenda. It seems that since the global financial crisis, politics and the status quo has been shaken up by the loss of faith in authority and the existing order. So we should expect to see other radical issues re-emerge onto the public agenda. And, in fact, elsewhere in the world, abortion law reform is now happening – notably in Britain.
Keeping abortion law reform off the agenda
Of course, many politicians are doing their best to keep reform off the agenda, or at least justify why they won’t take a stance on the issue. Politicians have been doing this for decades. For a background on how politicians of all stripes have avoided dealing with the issues, see Daphna Whitmore’s Review of Alison McCulloch's Fighting to choose: the abortion rights struggle in New Zealand.
Whitmore says: “Even today few politicians are willing to speak out in favour of abortion rights. The Labour Party for the most part was as reactionary and anti-abortion as National. Norman Kirk, as well as being anti-abortion, was a moral conservative and vehemently opposed homosexual law reform. David Lange too opposed abortion. Helen Clark – Prime Minister for nine years – didn’t lift a finger for abortion rights despite being pro-choice. Even when she headed the Labour/Alliance coalition government in 2000, when there was a real opportunity to decriminalise, it never happened. McCulloch rightly points out how gutless the parliamentarians were and still are. When Labour MP Steve Chadwick proposed a private members’ bill in 2010 to decriminalise abortion, the Labour Party stayed silent on the bill and it was dead in less than a month.”
Writing about this in 2008, the NBR’s Ben Thomas explained his difficulty in obtaining from the Labour Party – then in government – it’s policy on abortion law reform: “NBR was referred to no fewer than four different spokespeople by the extra-parliamentary Labour party on the seemingly simple question of what the party's official abortion policy was. The final cab off the rank, Justice Minister Annette King (in a party, not government capacity) refused to comment. When Lianne Dalziel was justice minister in 2004 she wrote to the justice select committee saying she had put off a proposed review of abortion legislation. (For the record, access to abortion has been part of the policy process at a party level within Labour, but no official remits or policy have been finalised)” – see: Time to stop being polite.
Where do the political parties now stand on the abortion question?
Traditionally all the political parties have taken the approach that “if it ain’t broke, why fix it.” This, of course, is still the view of Mr English. He said in the weekend that the law had "stood the test of time" and his ministers seem to back him up on this – see Nicholas Jones’ Health Minister Jonathan Coleman's abortion stance 'contradictory': Andrew Little. See also Craig McCulloch’s Govt accused of mixed messages on abortion.
And National’s Justice Minister Amy Adams has been clear about her party’s stance: "We are not currently looking at reforming or re-drafting the abortion law on the basis that it is working broadly as intended” – see Nicholas Jones’ No update to abortion law, Justice Minister Amy Adams confirms.
The Labour Party is now much more forthcoming on reform, with Little saying “he believes the legislation needs to be reviewed and upgraded” – see Nicholas Jones’ Abortion report to Parliament committee as Labour criticises Bill English's 'deep conservatism'. Notably, however, Labour is not willing to advocate for any particular policy of reform, instead promising “a full review of the law undertaken first, conducted by the Law Commission.”
The Greens have the most robust policy on reform, and won’t even allow their MPs a conscience vote on the matter – see Jan Logie’s Abortion – it’s time to decriminalise. The party would remove abortion from the Crimes Act.
But it’s the Act Party that has come across strongest on the issue recently. Leader David Seymour has attacked his own coalition partner, National, and said "Our abortion laws are archaic and should be modernised” – see Jo Moir’s Act leader David Seymour calls out the government on its 'archaic' abortion laws.
Mr Seymour also accuses Labour and the Greens of hypocrisy on the issue, as no MP from those parties has been willing to put a private member's bill into the ballot to attempt to bring about reform: "It's disappointing to see grandstanding on this issue from Labour and Green MPs, who fail to follow through with a sensible bill on abortion reform.”
Mr Seymour says: "Ninety-three of my colleagues are eligible to produce a bill that would modernise our abortion laws but none have. Instead the ballot is filled with bills on everything from the wearing of military decorations to the length of Auckland's wharves”.
But it’s actually New Zealand First’s policy on abortion reform that may end up being the most relevant. Martyn Bradbury points out in his blog post, Politically, Abortion change rests with NZ First so what does that look like? In this, Bradbury goes through all the political parties and their stances on reform, and he draws particular attention to the possibility that future reform could be based on New Zealand First’s policy of holding a referendum.
Finally, although nearly all of the commentary on abortion law reform points to the possibility of liberalising the current rules, where are the arguments for actually tightening them up? If you’re interested in the case for conservative reform, see Narelle Henson’s Overhaul of abortion laws overdue.