Friday, 13 August 2010

Abortion - why it needs to be legal (A Presentation)

Please find below (indeed below the Read More) the presentation I gave today on why abortion needs to be legal, and why we need a pro-choice law change. Many thanks to Kristy, Alana and Soraiya for organising it, and Nicole for pressing buttons, and everyone for coming along. Especially Nikki for being my friendly face in the crowd, and also big thanks to Deborah for proofing it from afar.

As you read please bear in mind that I was writing it to speak to the slides (which I've inserted as pics above the section of the speech that goes with them), and also that I've never done that before.

Here goes...





What I’m going to do with this talk is basically look at why we need abortion, why we have it now, through thinking about what our society would need to be like to not need abortion anymore.

My aim is to outline to you an argument based on the idea that abortion is necessary to enable women to have control over their own bodies and over their own fertility.

And from there, to point out that the best way to do this is to ensure we have safe, legal abortion available at the choice of the woman concerned.

A world without abortion will only be possible when we can have full control of our fertility.

Think about that for a second.

What would full control of our fertility mean? What would our lives be like if we could have that?

I’m not talking about being able to control our sexual desires. In my experience actually people can do that now. Sometimes they choose not to, but that’s not really being out of control, because the choice is still there and still made.

Let me tell you what I think having full control of our fertility would be like, what that world would be like.

It would be a world with no rape.

You may think, as I once did, that pregnancies resulting from rape are biologically unlikely. When I was at university I still believed what my sewing teacher told me, that the female body couldn’t conceive from rape because it wasn’t ready. It’s simply not true.

As I’ve got older and heard the secrets that women share with each other as they age and as they become mothers, I’ve learnt of women who have had the awful experience of not only being raped, but then discovering they are pregnant as a result.

To not only have control of your body stripped from you by a rapist, but to then also be pregnant against your will, seems to me a monstrous thing to have to deal with.

So in order to have control over our fertility we need a world without rape.

We also need 100% effective contraception, that’s freely available.

No form of contraception is currently 100% effective.

And some of the most highly effective forms of contraception available in NZ, including Mirena (0.2% failure) and long-acting implants (1% failure), are not yet subsidised by Government.

People will talk about abstinence being 100% effective, but it’s not really contraception is it?

People are going to have sex.

We’re going to have sex for reasons other than pro-creation, and some of that sex will be heterosexual. So we need contraception.

We need it to be

  • Free
  • Easy to get
  • Comfortable to request and use
  • And effective.
Just over half of those seeking a termination last year weren’t using contraception.

Maybe if contraception was better, cheaper and not treated like a dirty secret, some of those pregnancies wouldn’t have happen.

Certainly women would have more control over their fertility which has to be a good thing.

Another important component of a world where we have full control of our fertility, is that we all benefit from positive empowering attitudes to sex.

Imagine if sex education started young, younger than sexual activity starts, and it encouraged a positive attitude to sex.

Sex ed that taught people they can say no, that they should consciously seek yes, and that it’s totally a turn-on to say “I’m in to this, are you?” and be prepared to stop whenever you or your partner (or partners) want to.

We’d need to do a lot of remedial work with adults too, because most of us haven’t grown up with that kind of sex education, or indeed that kind of understanding of relationships more broadly.

Many of us, in particular women, don’t feel that we have absolute agency in our lives, so it’s going to take a fair bit of work to change our society to meet this one.

We’d probably need to have a think about media, advertising, the way women and men and sex are portrayed in our cultures.

But that’s a topic no doubt we could all discuss for the rest of this talk.

This might seem like a strange thing to raise in a talk about abortion, but we’d also need a world where parents were respected and supported.

There’s a perception out there that most of the women who have terminations are childless.

The stats tell another story, as you can see from this graph. These figures are from 2009, and looking back at the figures from 2000 onwards the trend is the same.

Just over half of all women seeking abortions are already mothers. It may be that some have gone the adoption route, we don’t know because those stats aren’t kept.

The stats actually go up to 7 or more previous live births, but I’ve lumped together the 5 and over for the sake of this graph.

I think there are possibly some sad individual stories in these stats, and it’s one of the reasons I wanted to start this talk by thinking about what a world without abortion would need to be like.

Because in these stats was a woman aged 15-19 who had had four live births, prior to the abortion she had in 2009. There were 7 other women, in the same age group, not even 20 yet, who had had three children already.

And there was a woman in the 20-24 bracket who had had 7 or more previous live births. Most in this room will be under 25. Can you imagine what your life might be like if you had had 7, or more, children by now?

I think there are some stories in there, I have no doubt, about women, and girls, with limited choices about their bodies and their lives. And some of those limitations will be bound by the way we support people as parents and children.

In a society where parents and their children are supported and respected, by others in their lives, by our social institutions, and by our governments, then perhaps everyone would have the resources to become parents, or to grow their families, when the opportunity arose.

I’m talking about being able to be sure, when that little stick shows you you’re pregnant, that any child that arises could have a safe, healthy home to live in, would have more than enough food and clothing and books and love, and so much more, from the people and the society around it.

To achieve this one we would need to think hard about our housing policy, our social welfare system, the nature of work in our economy, as well as our health and education systems.

It’s a biggie.

This is the last one I came up with, to achieve a world where we have full control over our fertility. It’s probably the hardest, because all pregnancies healthy and viable just doesn’t seem possible with our mortal bodies.

Because the grounds for having an abortion are so out-dated it’s basically impossible to work out how many abortions are the result of embryos or fetuses that are non-viable, highly likely to live short, painful lives after birth if they make it that far at all. I think we need to show compassion for women who make that choice.

Their pregnancies may well be planned, and dearly wanted, until the point where the bad news becomes clear. Some will choose to continue, to see what happens, and they should be able to make that choice.

For those who choose a termination in the face of the odds, in the face of probably adding a very sick child with high needs to their family when they may not have the resources to support them, they have my sympathy. What they don’t need, what they really don’t need, are people standing outside abortion clinics yelling at women who go in and holding up doctored pictures of aborted fetuses. That’s not what compassion looks like.

There’s an assumption that women who’ve had multiple abortions are sluts who are too lazy to take the Pill.

I suspect that in fact many of those who’ve had several abortions, and you can see from the graph that they are actually pretty rare, are those who have gone through the hope and loss cycle several times.

Maybe they have genetic abnormalities in the family or maybe they have an oddly shaped cervix. Maybe they’ve gone full term with a known fetal abnormality in the past and can’t face that again. Maybe they know that they won’t survive any further pregnancies.

There are many reasons why a woman might seek a termination, and we should trust women and respect them to make that choice, regardless of whether they’ve had to make it before too.

A world without abortion will only be possible when we can have full control of our fertility.

That’s a world with:

  • No rape
  • 100% effective contraception that’s freely available
  • Positive empowering attitudes to sex
  • Support and respect for parents
  • And 100% of pregnancies healthy and viable
We are simply not there yet. In fact, we’re a really long way off.

A little more on unwanted pregnancies. And I acknowledge that “unwanted” is a harsh word, and I’m open to suggestions for a better term to use. I’m aware that language is important in this discussion, and is often used to demonise women and raise fetuses to sainthood, so I’d appreciate some feedback on that at the end please.

In the debate about adding folic acid to bread there was a statistic quoted often which really stuck for me – that around half of all pregnancies are unplanned.

That’s a huge proportion, a massive number, which again reinforces my earlier points about giving people control of their fertility.

Of course unplanned can become wanted, and obviously many many of those unplanned pregnancies do go ahead, because otherwise the number of abortions each year would be more like 40,000, rather than under 20,000.

I know plenty of women who have, with partners or without, decided to go ahead with a pregnancy that wasn’t in their original thinking, and I’m sure there are women in this room who have made that choice.

They have my respect. The cost of a pregnancy and birth and raising a child is considerably greater than having an abortion.

And as I’ve already pointed out, in relation to pregnancies that aren’t healthy or viable, planned can unfortunately become unwanted too.

Situations can change outside the womb as well. Relationships break up, jobs are lost, health problems for the pregnant woman become overwhelming.

So we can conclude that unwanted pregnancies will happen for the forseeable future.

And while there are unwanted pregnancies there will be abortions.

There have always been abortions.

They just haven’t always been safe or legal, or counted.


  • Drinking copious amounts of gin,
  • having scalding hot bathes,
  • falling down stairs,
  • taking herbal concoctions,
  • surgery at the hands of backstreet abortionists,
  • using a coathanger on yourself
all of these methods, and more, have been used through-out history to deal with unwanted pregnancies.

Sadly there are parts of the world, and I suspect parts of our own country, where this is still the case today, despite the fact that we have a number of very safe medical and surgical options available.

We don’t yet live in a world where we have full control of our fertility.

Unwanted pregnancies will happen.

So we’re faced with how we deal with those unwanted pregnancies – as individuals and as a society.

I believe that abortion is necessary. I believe that holding a pro-choice position, allowing the woman concerned to choose whether or not to continue her pregnancy, is the ethical, indeed the moral, approach.

Who else can make that decision?

Who else has a better understanding of her circumstances?

Who else has to live with the consequences?

And who else should control her body?

The current law is over 30 years old. While it allows safe and legal abortion to happen, it is not pro-choice.

It is in fact quite heavily restrictive, in terms of the letter of the law itself. It was seen as so restrictive at the time that none of the 4 women in Parliament voted for it, and in fact over 300,000 NZers signed a petition seeking to repeal it. To put that in context, it was signed by around 10% of the total population at the time, in a period of only 13 weeks. They wanted repeal not because the law was too liberal but because it was too restrictive.

Why is the current law not pro-choice?

A woman seeking a termination needs permission from others, namely 2 certifying consultants. This is not treating women as adults in control of their own bodies.

It doesn’t allow the person most affected by the decision, the woman concerned, to make that decision. The 2 certifying consultants will not have to actually have the abortion, and will not have to deal with the consequences. They cannot possibly fully know or understand the circumstances of the woman seeking the termination, certainly not as well as she can. And they will not have to deal with the consequences of that decision at all.

Not only must the woman concerned get permission from other people to control her own body, she has to convince those 2 other people that the pregnancy would be a risk to her physical or mental health.

Risk to physical or mental health does not cover all of the reasons why a woman might seek a termination, far from it. It starts from the default position that continuing the pregnancy is always the best option, and it’s necessary to prove otherwise. There are a whole lot of reasons why having a child, or adding to your family, might not be a good idea for a woman, not least lacking the resources to support that child.

But the law says only risk to physical or mental health.*

So each year thousands of women end up in the invidious position of having to show that a pregnancy is a risk to their mental health at the same time as they prove they are rational enough to be giving informed consent to a termination. A friend of mine referred to this as “having to cry twice”. Because of course you have to convince two people, who don’t have to go through the procedure and don’t have to deal with the consequences, that you are just fragile enough to be at risk, but simultaneously strong enough to be able to seek an abortion.

All of this creates hoops for women to jump through.

Which in turn create time delays, and from there what could be simple medical abortions in the first trimester become more complicated surgical abortions in the second trimester, and so on.

This is not a law that treats women as moral adults, and it is not a law that makes medical sense either.

What would a pro-choice law look like?

Some of you may have heard that a Labour backbench MP, and former midwife, Steve Chadwick, has been working on a possible law change.

While we don’t know the precise details yet, what we do know sounds like a significant shift in the law, which would provide for:

  • abortion available on demand (i.e. woman concerned decides) to 24 weeks
  • abortion with medial practitioner’s support after 24 weeks when appropriate
  • decriminalising abortion by removing it from the Crimes Act
  • regulating health practitioners involved in terminations
  • and importantly, health practitioners who have conscientious objection to abortion would have to inform women they can access abortion from elsewhere
This sounds pretty pro-choice to me. It acknowledges that the women concerned should decide, up to 24 weeks gestation.

I’m open-minded about the 24 weeks issue myself, and would be very interested to see debate around that in a Select Committee process. It’s really easy to get bogged down in the 24 weeks aspect, when actually what we need is a law that shifts the decision-making firmly to the woman concerned, and Chadwick’s proposal looks a lot more like that than what we have now.

Abortion law reform needs to happen. It has needed to happen for over thirty years. I believe that the majority of New Zealanders support a woman’s right to choose, and would support a change to the law to reflect that. I hope to work together with many of you in this room in the near future to make that change.

We’ve seen a lot of successful social law changes in the last three decades, which have been part of positive social change.

Thirty two years ago, when the current law on abortion was passed,

  • homosexuality was illegal,
  • smacking was seen as a desirable parenting practice,
  • sex workers were criminals with no protections
  • and raping your wife was totally fine and dandy.
Let’s make a pro-choice abortion law one of the positive social changes our generation makes.


Comments on this post should be focused on the points made in the presentation. I.e. not going down the fetus/embryo personhood debate yet again. Off topic comments are likely to be deleted.

*  The grounds in the law are a bit more complex than this, but in my reading that's what it boils down to.

26 comments:

Nikki Cupcake said...

I think is a great post! It's extremely important that people are pro choice! Things over here in the US are a bit different. abortion laws vary state to state and I happen to live in a very liberal area which means when it comes to abortion laws it's kind of easy to seek a abortion up until 24 weeks.

YET when i had gone to seek an abortion before 24 weeks they gave me such a run around that i was over 24 weeks by the time the appointment was approved (and well today i'm aprox 30 weeks with my 2nd child, which i do not regret!)

and i like the points you made! they are very true and very real. in the US (i don't know the exact statistic) some where around 50% of abortions are done because of failed birth control, both my kids are because of a result of that!

(i'm going to be linking this post from my blog because i think it's something people should check out!)

muerk said...

I have a different view about controlling fertility. I've made the decision that I will accept my fertility rather than control it. I use natural family planning and it has been excellent for me, but I know there is always a chance that I could get pregnant. Likewise I could be raped at my fertile time. I have abandoned the notion of control and accepted that I may have an unplanned pregnancy.

I worry about the promotion of control in our society, I don't think we can have total control over our circumstances and our humanity is defined by how we deal with situations we could not have forseen or planned for. I'm thinking very much here of euthanasia, but I'm not going there because it is off topic.

I'm not suggesting we just abandon trying to plan or think about our lives, but to hold on to control so tightly seems to me to be more detrimental than trying to live with the situations we are put in, even when they are deeply painful.

What if there was no abortion because rather than having full control over our fertility we had a peaceful acceptance of a new baby no matter what?

Muerk

Acid Queen said...

Derail much muerk?

Now is not the time to air your anti-abortion views for the millionth time.

captiver said...

Really great presentation Julie. Thank you!

LadyNews said...

Seriously excellent presenation, the structure of the points you use to make you argument is spot on.

LadyNews said...

I think I meant 'presentation' and 'your'.....oops

Julie said...

Thanks for the feedback folks, it's been really nice to have people spread the link around on FB and the blogs.

muerk, I find your points about letting go of control of your fertility a bit contradictory. On the one hand you say you accept your fertility, as if acceptance and control are mutually exclusive, but on the other you are practicing natural family planning, which is a form of contraception (and is in fact one of the forms of contraception that the ASC list in their stats, i.e some of the 47% iirc of those seeking an abortion in 2009 who were using contraception were doing NFP).

And in fact the anti-abortion position that you hold is seeking to control the bodies of women.

Your points that respond to my post are ok, I've ignored the rest that is not. A more strict moderator might have just deleted your comment entirely.

muerk said...

I don't expect though my control of my fertility to be perfect and I think that's the main issue. Short of having a hysterectomy there is always a chance of pregnancy. I'm being prudent by avoiding pregnancy given my personal situation, but if it happens I'm not prepared to end the life of my child. I can never have perfect control of my fertility so I accept that I may have an unplanned pregnancy.

And it is true I want the State to control women's choices about their own bodies - I will own that. But only because ending the life of a human being is the greater wrong. Likewise I would control people from amputating their healthy limbs or stop heroin users from obtaining and using drugs.

Our personal autonomy is never complete and absolute.

derp de derp said...

What if a woman gets pregnant deliberately, but, say, a month or two into her term decides that she no longer wants to have a baby? Surely you wouldn't deny her the option to have an abortion (I wouldn't)? Given the large number of women on the planet (around three and a half billion last I checked), I hardly think it's unlikely that that situation would occur. So then, even if all women had full control of their fertility, I don't think "a world without abortion" would be in the cards.

I guess my issue is that you speak of "a world without abortion" as if that were some sort of desirable goal, but I honestly can't see why you might think that it is. I suppose that, speaking strictly from a propaganda perspective, it might be a useful phrase to convince anti-choice liberals to support progressive reform related to contraception and the like, but was this talk aimed at an anti-choice crowd? Given who the organisers were, I wouldn't think so, but I may be wrong about that.

Julie said...

@muerk And if our personal autonomy can't be complete and absolute, on the issue of fertility anyway, then we need abortion. That's my argument. Again with the going there on the fetal personhood stuff. I can see that you think it's so entwined with the rest of it that you can't resist commenting, despite a specific request not to. Last chance.

@derp de derp Thanks for commenting. I agree with your point about planned becoming unwanted. It's not something I went into a great deal in the presentation, but I did include this bit to try and cover that off a little:

"And as I’ve already pointed out, in relation to pregnancies that aren’t healthy or viable, planned can unfortunately become unwanted too.

Situations can change outside the womb as well. Relationships break up, jobs are lost, health problems for the pregnant woman become overwhelming. "

I guess I was trying to make the overall point that the five areas I identified that needed to be resolved before we wouldn't need abortion anymore are impossible to meet in the foreseeable future. I was partly writing in the context of what I see as a particularly frustrating situation in NZ, that many of those who advocate against abortion also advocate against contraception, against sex education and for a smaller state (meaning less support for parents and children often).

During the discussion following the presentation I directly challenged one of the two pro-life people present to consider what he was doing to stop rape, increase access to contraception etc, and whether he was putting more effort into opposing access to abortion than addressing those issues. He had nothing to say on that. Which I think speaks volumes about the real agenda of some who oppose abortion - that it's not about respecting women, or parents, or children, it's about controlling them in relation to a very narrow view of morality. And when confronted with the reality of why we need abortion (which is the flipside to painting a picture of what a world without abortion would need to be like) they've got nothing.

Julie said...

Thinking a bit more, I think I could have made it more explicit that my opinion is very much that whatever reason(s) a woman has for choosing an abortion, that's ok by me. Likewise for choosing to continue a pregnancy.

Anonymous said...

Wow Julie, this is an awesome presentation. I'm sorry I couldn't be there to see it. Abortion is such a sensitive topic for so many of us. So many think that those that have abortions are cold, uncaring and slutty and I thank you for highlighting that this is not the case at all. Those women are our friends, lovers, employers, colleagues, sisters - many of whom would never reveal their secret for fear of being judged, even many years later. They may be women who are now better partners and mothers than they would have been without the abortion experience - they value the children they are able to have, the families they are able to nuture. Please know that you are able to say what some others wish they were brave enough to, and our thoughts and prayers go out to you.

Boganette said...

Brilliant Julie. Well done. It's just 100% spot on.

AlbatrossNZ said...

Thanks for the post Julie. Very concise and to the point.

ScubaNurse said...

What an amazing speach Julie. I wish I had been there to see it. I had no idea that NZ laws were so restrictive, only that it is legal.
Im furious about it, and even angrier when the first google hits on embryonic development come up as anti-abortion pages with incorrect images.
Cellular development is slow, and often odd looking, certainly not cute, personable, smiling and sucking a thumb. The cruelty of people to play on a persons ignorance and fear is beyond me.
By the way, Im not a lay person, Im a nurse who has had the honor of being with women when they experience a c-section by choice, by emergancy, and in sadder circumstances, a post-miscarrage D&C.

ScubaNurse said...

Oh funny joke... possibly not in best taste - feel free to delete me Julie.

"What do they call people who use natural family planning?

...Parents."

Fine if you want to be one, not as great if you dont.

Julie said...

Thanks for the fresh feedback, and Scubanurse I believe we have hosted that very same joke in the past (and that I may have been the one who made it) so would be a bit hypocritical to delete you for it now ;-)

Allie said...

Hi Julie - I think you're absolutely right that it's very difficult to have an unplanned pregnancy, that if the world were better it would be easier to decrease abortions and so on - what concerns me is that you haven't addressed a fundamental problem. Why is it okay to "terminate" (or whatever you want to call it) a foetus, when it is not okay to terminate a child that has been born? Where is the line drawn between infanticide and abortion, and why? Until you address this, you've got a very nice argument but not an argument that addresses any of the key points of your opponents. And it seems like this was a talk that was directed at opponents.

Allie said...

Just wanted to clarify - I meant that it's difficult ie scary to have an unplanned pregnancy, not that it's difficult as in hard!

Julie said...

Allie, you clearly didn't read the comment direction at the end of the post. Which is tiresome.

We have a whole page now on this blog that is devoted to the arguments around the morality of abortion. Indeed it even includes a link to at least one post written by a blogger here about the infanticide issue. That page wasn't complete when I put in place the comment direction, but it was when you made your comment. I suggest that you direct your comment to that page for discussion, in line with our comment policy. Comments on this thread should be about the actual points raised in the blog post, as I said at the time quite clearly, at the end of the post.

Allie said...

Sorry, Julie, I didn't read below the "more info" title since I wasn't particularly interested in more info. My bad! I'm a newcomer to this sort of debate and didn't realise that particular question is so common.

George said...

Hi Julie,
Not trying to start a huge debate here, but I've noticed the conspicuous lack of any concern for the child that would be aborted. You say that the most affected person is the mother themselves, but fail to mention that an abortion not only affects a mother's life, it ends a child's life. This, in my view, is where your logic is flawed and dare I say selfish.
Furthermore, having an independent certification is standard practice - the practitioner is identifying whether there is likely to be a mental or physical effect greet enough to justify the ending of a life - it is not enough that the mother self-diagnoses. The addition of external certification is the recognition that there are more interests at stake here than just your own.

George

Cheveux Fluorescents said...

Wow, I'm so glad I found this. I had a termination of a partial molar pregnancy back in April. I've written about it but I'm not ready to publish it yet.

I could have gone down two routes with it I guess: continuing operations to try and curb my mutating placenta that had crushed and deformed my baby, or, stopping everything right there.
There was virtually no chance she could make it to being born and they reiterated to me that she couldn't survive outside the womb, but it was still a very hard process.

She was unplanned, but I wanted her once I knew and it all sort of went downhill from there. I never thought I'd have an abortion in my life, I thought I'd go to any lengths for my children, but it took this to make me realise that women don't choose abortion because they view it positively but because it is the better outcome in an awful situation.

Even if she could have survived, I'm in no fit state to take care of her, and adopting her out would have had an awful effect on the father (we're sadly no longer on speaking terms). I have problems with my blood, kidneys, liver, stomach, heart, and even mental health after this whole ordeal. I can hallucinate whole scenarios and lose entire days in my memory.

I'm not eating properly due to some serious budgeting, I should be on a whole host of medication I can't afford, I'm waiting for a notice to come through saying I can have it for free, and financial help, but it's taking it's time. If I'd kept my daughter such delays could have been fatal to her.

Before any fundamentalists jump on my back, I wasn't careless with my money. I'd be fine if I hadn't lost a £400+ deposit on a house I was going to live in with the father because so-called "friends" hadn't decided to spread the rumour that I wasn't really pregnant, so childish and very costly.

For some reason he believed them over me, despite the size I became and the excessive morning sickness he saw me deal with when we lived together elsewhere. I have been facing this entire thing without him because he left town.

At my operation not all of the damaged tissue was removed and it has proliferated, I now have Gestational Trophoblastic Disease. The only two doctors in the city who can help me are fully booked until the end of October.


There have been people truly trying to stick the knife in recently. Telling me what I should and shouldn't have done and belittling my chances of dying.

I DID love my child, I really did, but keeping her could never have conceivably worked. It wasn't in HER best interest.
Regardless of all of this, it was and remains, my choice.

Julie said...

George, which part of the comment direction did you not understand? Curious how you also managed to go past the exchange with Allie also. This thread is not about the fetal personhood argument. We now have a whole page devoted to arguing the morality of abortion, including links to the many posts we have written here which cover that issue.

Next person who continues to ignore this will just be deleted without even an acknowledging comment.

Ally said...

Yippee! THANK YOU Hand Mirror for putting this up and THANK YOU Julie for such a fantastic, comprehensive presentation! I wasn't able to make the gathering in the weekend but just seeing some of the unofficial reports floating around on Twitter and Facebook, and now this (excellent) presentation have made me feel inspired!

Ally said...

Oops - got my wires crossed - read on Facebook that this was from the recent conference, not something that Julie presented last year. Anyway - it is an awesome post and I am glad I've read it and I feel all inspired!