A BIRTH RIGHT?
Abortion law reform is back on the table with a new government, but not everyone supports the move to take abortion out of the Crimes Act. Jo Moir investigates the arguments for and against liberalising abortion.
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Marina Young was 20 when she and her boyfriend found out they were having a baby.
Initially they laughed at the crazy situation they had found themselves in, and then reality set in.
For Young, she started to worry that if she kept the baby her boyfriend would leave her; family members told her she’d never reach her full potential.
She’d never known her own father. Her mother hadn’t known her father, either. She didn’t want the same for her child.
That was in 1986. Two years later Young and her boyfriend-turnedhusband started a family together, and that was when pangs of regret set in.
‘‘When I got pregnant and had the ultra sound – that’s when it hit me as to whether two years had really made a difference.’’
She and her husband suffered ‘‘periods of depression and feeling this void and emptiness’’.
‘‘I think if someone had put forward another suggestion or angle at the time we would have thought about it more,’’ she says.
Abortion is a polarising issue with laws that haven’t changed in 40 years.
In the United States, President Donald Trump yesterday signalled his administration’s support for the right to life movement, calling abortion a Constitutional issue.
It became an election issue in this country last year when Jacinda Ardern stated in a fiery leaders’ debate that she would shift abortion out of the Crimes Act, where it has been since 1977.
Ardern said at the time "there will be a majority of Parliament that think, actually in 2017, women shouldn’t face being criminals for accessing their own rights’’. It pitted in stark terms the progressive young Labour leader against the staunchly Catholic Bill English.
Now Labour is seeking to make good on that promise.
Justice Minister Andrew Little told the
Sunday Star-Times this week Labour wants to ‘‘modernise’’ the laws and see abortion treated as a health issue – not a criminal one.
That means he will soon write to the Law Commission to get advice on the best process for doing so.
It’s an emotive topic that evokes strong feelings, and no matter what politicians do half of the country is likely to be hacked off.
For Young, who does advocacy work for conservative lobby group Family First, no option other than abortion was ever on the table. She says she felt like she was being put on a conveyor belt.
The concerns she had about keeping the child, which she raised with her counsellor ahead of the termination, were all agreed with and no counterarguments were ever made.
In Young’s case she says she was lucky – her partner stayed with her despite the rollercoaster of emotions they went through over the years and they now have three adult children.
In 2008, Young started the Buttons Project, where women who have been through an abortion send her a button to acknowledge the life of their child.
Young has collected more than 20,000 buttons in almost a decade, some have stories with them, some have names and some are just a single button sent to her to be part of a wall of remembrance.
Last month, Family First commissioned a poll of 1013 New Zealanders found 52 per cent of people generally support abortion while 29 per cent are opposed.
Interestingly, 53 per cent of those who generally support abortion think the time limit for getting one should be less than the current 20 weeks stated in the Crimes Act.
Young she says she never thought once about the Crimes Act when going through the abortion process.
She worries modernising the law will mean a ‘‘slippery slope’’ to looser safeguards for women and less information.
Terry Bellamak from Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand (ALRANZ) is welcoming news the Government will be moving quickly on abortion.
‘‘I’m quite encouraged by the words Mr Little has used, especially around treating abortion as a health issue rather than a criminal issue, because it really is a health issue for one in three women in New Zealand,’’ she says. Modernisation of the laws has been needed for 40 years, says Bellamak, and removing abortion from the Crimes Act is only the beginning.
She says among the many issues with the current law are doctors not being trained properly in abortions and a lack of access in rural areas.
‘‘It certainly won’t be going far enough if access issues are not also addressed.’’
In a poll commissioned by ALRANZ last year a majority of the country supported abortion being legalised. When, as seems likely, the law change is voted on in Parliament, it will see politicians from either side of the aisle with contrasting views.
National leader English has previously called the current setup ‘‘broadly satisfactory’’.
His caucus isn’t united in that view though, for example, Nikki Kaye has called the current law ‘‘archaic’’. National’s justice spokeswoman Amy Adams told the Star-Times reforming abortion laws ‘‘hasn’t been a focus of the National Party’’ and she’d want to see proposed changes before commenting further.
Similarly Ardern has previously said she expected some of her own caucus would oppose a bill proposing changes to the law.
For Marina Young the issue is a health one but at the moment the law as it stands provides ‘‘certain safeguards for women’’.
She says the services available aren’t enough and if there’s going to be any changes to the law it should be around making sure women had ‘‘honest information’’ and knew what support and options were available to them.
‘‘I had so many feelings of depression, low self-worth and anxiety – nobody told me I could feel like that.’’
She says the Family First poll highlighted ‘‘there was high support for the current legal system the way it is... and even tighter safeguards’’.
It’s almost 10 years since Young started collecting buttons from women who had been through an abortion.
Starting the Button Project almost 10 years ago meant Young and her husband meant sitting down with their three children and telling them about the decision they’d made before they were born.
‘‘I had to tell them the truth about their elder sibling and that was a really hard thing to do.’’
A decade later and Young is still deeply moved every time she receives a button in the mail.
‘‘The reason for the Buttons Project was to help in that journey of healing. There’s even been the odd person who has thought their decision was right for them but they’ve still sent in a button as an acknowledgement.’’
Young doesn’t know how to answer polls or surveys about abortion because while she had one herself she doesn’t support the process. ‘‘I guess I would vote for women not to have an abortion in the first place.’’
It’s taken years to come to terms with the decision she and her husband made. While they’ve found peace – the Buttons Project has helped with that – the process of getting an abortion is now one Young doesn’t support.
She recalls a friend coming home from overseas not long after her abortion to have and raise a child on her own.
‘‘I remember thinking I’m such a weak person given she was going to do it all on her own and we could have gone through it together.’’
It was years before she told her friend what she had done – it remained an ‘‘invisible barrier’’ until she was ready to tell people the truth.
Young hopes to have an exhibition this year for the Buttons Project to remember those 20,000 lives. ‘‘People start to heal the minute they feel heard.’’
It really is a health issue for one in three women in New Zealand.