Abortions don't belong in the NZ Crimes Act
Contributed by Michelle Hickman
When I was 19 years old, I had an abortion.
For me personally, it was the single most difficult decision I have ever had to make, shrouded in grief and a monumental amount of pain that took years of professional guidance to navigate - but I was always grateful that the decision was a safe and viable option for me.
However, after closely following Alabama’s new passing of the bill that restricts all abortions, including rape or incest (except in the case of a medical emergency), I cannot help but feel immense shame and anger not only towards the 25 white men in Alabama who signed off on this bill, but also towards our own country’s laws and what it means for us as women collectively around the world. Everyone is watching the United States with horror and disbelief as each wave of feminist crusades and conquests, from the suffragettes to the #metoo movement slip away before our very eyes in a multitude of States, but many people don’t realize that right here in ‘progressive’ New Zealand, our own laws are almost just as archaic; abortion is still illegal.
While abortion is accessible in New Zealand, under our current legislation, women seeking abortions require two doctors’ approval as stated by a narrow set of rules in the Crimes Act; if the pregnancy plays a serious danger to the mental, or physical health of the woman.
We are forced to submit our own bodily autonomy and reproductive rights into the hands of two complete strangers, instead of being trusted with the idea that we know what is best for ourselves and our own bodies, in our current situation. We may be able to access abortion here, but the state still ultimately holds power over a woman’s body, as it has throughout all of history.
The history of our abortion laws in New Zealand is long, and complicated, filled with jargon and an underlying objective to control women. In 1861, the English Offences Against The Person Act made it an offence not only for women to obtain their own abortion, but for anyone who attempted to procure one for them. In 1893, The Criminal Code Act was passed, which reduced the penalty to seven years imprisonment for women who had illegally obtained one, and life for those who had performed them. Fifty years later in 1939, an esteemed London gynaecologist helped redefine the interpretation of the word ‘unlawfully’ after a test case of a fourteen year old girl who had become pregnant as a result of rape. His defence claimed that he had carried out the abortion because continuing with the pregnancy would have made her a ‘physical or mental wreck.’ Thus, our current loophole in the law was introduced.
The rest of the 1900’s was filled with various changes to the law that continued to restrict access for women. In the late sixties, the states of Victoria and New South Wales introduced a liberal interpretation of what was considered lawful, allowing women with means to travel to Australia to legally obtain one. For those unable to (which was most), backstreet clinics and self-administered abortions were a common practice, resulting in life-threatening infections, hemorrhages, and death - not to mention the associated trauma. The controversial Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act was introduced in 1977 after many amendments and deliberations, which effectively allowed women to obtain abortions by telling two certifying consultants that continuing with the pregnancy would be detrimental to their mental or physical health. That was forty-two years ago. The law hasn’t been changed since.
The fact that abortion is still in the Crimes Act only highlights the ongoing stigma surrounding it, perpetuating a vicious cycle of shame and negativity.
The circumstances surrounding my own abortion and the reasoning behind it, as for many women, are complex - and irrelevant. Every woman’s story is different, and every woman’s decision is valid, regardless of their age and stage in life. Whatever the context, safe and affordable legal access to medical care and support for women should be a fundamental human right all over the globe, without making us feel like criminals for recognizing the enormity of a decision to bring a child into this world, and admitting that we aren’t ready, willing, or able to.
Banning abortions doesn’t reduce the amount of abortions that take place - it merely forces women to look for alternative, high-risk solutions of providing one herself, often with dire consequences.
Women protesting against the bill in Alabama have taken to dressing up as characters from the dystopian saga The Handmaid’s Tale as a metaphor: we are not incubators who serve no purpose other than having babies. We are not living in a dystopian society where women are subjected and enthralled into sexual and reproductive slavery. We are not in an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale. Yet somehow, in many places around the world, we still are.
By reforming our own abortion laws and taking it out of the Crimes Act, we would be acknowledging that we, in New Zealand, are far removed from this kind of draconian thinking as a society. We would be acknowledging that abortion is a rudimentary and necessary health care procedure. And we would be acknowledging that it’s a decision that we, as women, are more than capable enough of deciding to have done on our own.
Michelle Hickman is a freelance writer and student of Creative Writing at Massey University. She's recently realised that if we want to help change the narrative, we have to own our stories instead of letting them own us.