Up Front by Emma Hart


Dropping the A-Bomb

When friends of mine were first messing around with bulletin boards back in the early nineties, they used to say that when commenting dropped off, all you needed to do was Drop the A-bomb. Mention abortion, and the impassioned raving on both sides would get your traffic right up again. All heat, no light. 

Back in March, when I was talking about women's blogging to Wallace Chapman and I wanted an example of a "women's issue*" that was never going to be an election issue talked about by Important People, it was abortion that leapt to mind. I mean, okay, we've made some moves towards becoming a proper grown-up country, but let's not get ridiculous. We can't talk about sensible abortion law. 

And okay, just a couple of weeks later, Marama Davidson wrote a column in the Herald on Sunday in which she – a serious political candidate – not only talked about abortion, she admitted having had one. 

All this time I'd been thinking about, and talking about in pubs, writing a column on abortion. It was tricky, though. I'd need to get it exactly right, and be in a place where I could deal with all the head-kicking. I have two children. I've had four pregnancies. This was never going to be easy. 

Then the Greens put abortion on the agenda, and some news agencies even reported it. 

So here we are, talking about abortion. The first thing you have to say when you have this conversation in New Zealand is this: abortion is illegal. Abortion is a crime, which carries penalties including imprisonment. Rather like marriage equality, legalising abortion is so controversial a lot of people think we've already done it. There are only two circumstances in which you have a right to a safe legal abortion: serious foetal abnormality, and serious risk to your physical or mental health. There is no right to an abortion if you have been raped. 

But the system is sort-of functioning now, right? Our Prime Minister is happy with where our abortion law is at. We have de facto abortion on demand. If it's only slightly broken, why fix it? 

Under our current law, in order to get an abortion, you have to game the system. That means you have to have the knowledge and the resources to do that. My GP is fantastic: one of the many who break the law with crushing frequency in order to do their job – caring for their patients' wellbeing. Not everyone is so lucky. Sometimes your GP is this guy. 

So if you're a white middle-class well-educated urban woman, accessing an abortion is relatively easy.  If you live in the country, if your GP is uncooperative, if you don't know the right things to say or places to go, it's all much more difficult. There are massive inequalities of access, and they disproportionately affect the most vulnerable. 

And I did say "relatively easy". There are still a series of hoops to jump through, in a process which must be driven by the person who's just been certified as mentally unfit to be pregnant. It all takes time: the average wait time for a woman trying to access a termination is twenty-five days. That time lapse eliminates less traumatic methods of termination. With more sensible law, a termination could be "Go home and take this pill." 

And it's harrowing. You'll be sent for a scan, and sit in a waiting room full of happily pregnant women. Because you're (probably) very early on and the foetus is so small, you'll be asked to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound. (Warning: link contains image.) You can't be forced to do this, of course, but the clinic may not proceed without the scan. 

On the way into the clinic, you will have to walk past protesters, probably holding up pictures pretending an eight-week foetus looks like a baby. As lovely as the staff always seem to be, you won't get to hang around long after they're done. 

And if you need to grieve, which some of us find we do, you'll probably do it utterly alone, and feel bad about betraying the Cause while you do it. You won't have talked to many people about it, because having an abortion is still something to be deeply ashamed of. 

Preventing unwanted pregnancies, and dealing with them once they've happened, are two quite separate things, and reducing the number of abortions must focus on the former, not the latter. Comprehensive sex education, a wide range of easily accessible contraceptive options, reducing the stigma around sex so people can talk about contraception: these are the things that reduce abortion demand, not torturing pregnant women. 

Sometimes there are situations in which there are no good options. Some people seem to forget that once you have an unwanted pregnancy, "travel back in time and not get pregnant" is not actually a choice. If you take away a woman's right to a safe, legal abortion, all you're doing is leaving her with the options that were worse than abortion to start with. The fact that it's awful is why we need to make it as easy as we possibly can. For that, the law must change.

*i.e. an intractably difficult poisoned chalice avoided by pretending it's not a 'real' issue for real grown-ups

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