Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The (non-existent) relationship between abortion law and abortion rates

In early 1978, after the current abortion law was passed, it was almost impossible to get a legal abortion in New Zealand.* The law was incredibly badly drafted - the interaction of the implementation dates of different clauses was unclear, and no-one was prepared to take a risk. Feminists responded by organising SOS - Sisters Overseas Service - so women could get abortions in Australia.

Before the new law for most New Zealand women the easiest way to get an abortion was from the Auckland Medical Aid Centre - which was challenging the law and providing abortion on demand in the first trimester, at a relatively low cost. After the new law came in it cost $500 (including the trip to Australia) - $3,000 in today's money.

And yet, by the best estimates New Zealand women had more abortions in 1978 than they had in 1977. They certainly didn't have fewer abortions.**

To be absolutely clear - when New Zealand passed what was then one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the Western world and the cost of abortion increased dramatically - the total number of abortions New Zealand women had went up.

I mention this as a response to Chris Trotter's ridiculous column:
Does Ms Chadwick not believe that 18,382 abortions are enough? Does she think there should be more? Has the existing legislation created an unfulfilled demand for abortion which her proposed private members bill seeks to satisfy?***


While it is true that restrictive abortion laws deny some women access to abortion, and I don't want to minimise those women's experiences, the vast majority of women who want an abortion in New Zealand do get one - just as they did in 1977. New Zealand's restrictive abortion laws have never had a significant impact on the abortion rate - that's not how abortion law or access works.****

I'm not an activist on this issue because I'm fighting for women to have abortions. Quinine, hot baths, knitting needles, trips to Auckland, vitamin C, menstrual extraction, trips to Australia, telling the doctors what they need to hear about their mental health - women do what needs to be done to terminate a pregnancy.

Yes women in New Zealand generally manage to jump through the hoops that have been set up (if they didn't then we would have had abortion law reform a long time ago - just like the only reason Ireland gets away with having such restrictive abortion laws is because women can go to the UK). But (and I will go into this in more detail soon) those hoops have a cost - time off work, travel, childcare and stress. A cost which has nothing to do with the reality of abortion. A cost I don't think women should have to pay.

I'm an activist on this issue, because I think women should not have to pay a penance to someone else's morality before they get access to abortion.

* A much smaller number of abortions were carried out in other hospitals, and probably provisions for illegal abortions in some places.

** The graph of women between the ages of 16-45 travelling to Australia for a period of less than 5 days has a huge spike at this time. On top of that there are details from groups such as SOS.

*** And he trots out the compromise lie - it was not a compromise - it was a complete victory for the other side - the voting record and debate demonstrates that very clearly.

**** Seriously this is abortion politics 101 - the law makes minimal difference to the rate of abortion. It doesn't matter how high the cost for an abortion is - almost all women will pay it, because the cost of a pregnancy, let alone a child, is going to be greater.

3 comments:

Lucy said...

And I believe in countries where it *is* still illegal abortion rates are similar to countries where it is legal. Rates of death and injury are just much higher.

All of which counters rather neatly the argument that women don't realise what they're doing - they are serious enough about knowing what they're doing and why to go to very considerable expense and sometimes danger in order to do it.

Trouble said...

Maia, it would be a wonderful public service if you were to scan those debates and put them up online somewhere. Modern Hansard is available online through Knowledge Basket, but I don't think it goes that far back. I think it would be really striking for a modern audience to see what the makers of the current law sounded like.

I remember reading something that said in the early 70s something like 8000 women a year had abortions - our population has grown a lot since then (although I'm not sure about women aged 15-44), so the rate wouldn't have changed all that much.

ideologicallyimpure said...

Awesome post, Maia. And I agree with Trouble - it would be fantastic if there were online sources for the history of reproductive rights in NZ. If only we can have any kind of faith that our "journalists" would use it!