Why women need abortion rights: the socialist case

Shomi Yoon gave this talk to the Wellington branch of the International Socialist Organisation in March.

“Not the Church, not the state, women must decide their fate”: this was the fighting slogan of the abortion rights campaign of the 1970s. Women’s liberation was a movement that swept across the world, growing out of and alongside the New Left of those days. Women were organising – protesting, campaigning, and demonstrating for the right to abortions, for equal pay, against workplace discrimination. Ideas were in ferment.

That’s a legacy we should be proud of; the organizations of that time fought for access many of us take for granted today. When you bring up abortion rights nowadays, often the response you’ll get is, ‘don’t we already have those?’

The answer to that question is yes and no. Yes, in that the days of back-street abortions are, in New Zealand at least, largely over. The movement did force concessions. If you need an abortion, in Wellington certainly, you’re likely to be able to get one. So part of the socialist case is remembering that this came about through struggle. We need to remember that what we’ve got we won as a result of fighting.

But the answer is also no, because abortion is still in the Crimes Act. It is still a sometimes humiliating and demeaning process getting an abortion – you have to jump through all sorts of hoops. It can, like everything in the health system, be an expense, and the service is far from as accessible as it needs to be. Sometimes what seem like little things – like traveling time, time off work, petrol money – can be big problems for the poor and the young. And we still live in a society where women and women’s sexual and reproductive choices are being controlled and judged by others.

So there is still a struggle before us, and we need to keep making the case for why we need to defend abortion rights. We need to make that case unapologetically; the Christian Right, moral panics in the newspapers, conservative politicians, and all sorts of people are working to make women feel guilty for controlling their bodies. We need to keep struggling, to defend what we have and gain more. And we need to link this to a pro-working class politics – for free abortion on demand, for a society where working women’s needs is met, for reproductive and bodily liberation.

What does it mean to be pro-choice?

Being pro-choice means supporting women having the right to choose whether they have an abortion or not, whether they continue with a pregnancy. The woman is the person best placed to make decisions about her own body. It’s her choice. Today, abortion is an essential health service that women need. Around one in five of all pregnancies in NZ end in an abortion; and one in every four women has had an abortion in her lifetime. The Guttmacher Institute and ALRANZ have excellent facts and figures sections on their websites giving more information. According to the Abortion Supervisory Committee, there were 15,863 abortions in 2011 – the lowest it has been since 1999. Some 53% of women who had an abortion were already mothers, and the age group with the highest rate of abortions is 20 – 24 year olds.

Women from all the cultures and ethnic groups in New Zealand have accessed abortion services; it’s a myth put about by anti-choice groups that some cultures are, as a whole, opposed to abortion. Pakeha, Maori, Pasifika, Asian: thousands of women from very different backgrounds use abortion services.

Abortion shouldn’t be a dirty word spoken quietly in corridors. It’s healthcare, a medical treatment for women to rightly to receive just like any other. Women can’t freely talk of their experiences getting an abortion; it’s often assumed that women are traumatised from abortions – although multiple studies have shown this to be a myth – and if women get multiple abortions than they are deemed a “slut.” Our sexuality, our choices, our reproductive rights are still controlled by the state and sexist society.

Abortions have always happened

Margaret Sparrow is a pioneer of our movement, a doctor and women’s health advocate who has been campaigning for a woman’s right to choose – as an activist in ALRANZ – for decades. Her book Abortion then and now is a comprehensive study, containing abortion stories from New Zealand women from 1940 to 1980. The book captures stories from when abortion was illegal to the legal status of abortions now. It is essential reading, and gives a complex picture of history. The stories of women’s experiences, particularly working-class women’s experiences, before the 1980s shows us why we need to fight to keep our rights. Sparrow’s book documents how dangerous this world was for women. A 2012 protest for abortion rights after Savita Halappanavar died in Ireland after having been denied a termination.

The reasons for women getting an abortion are as varied as each woman’s life, and have varied across recent history. Often it was because they were unmarried or couldn’t cope with more children, but not always. But one thing all of the stories Sparrows collects and shares is the terrible anxiety woman faced at the thought of not being able to get a termination.

The churches condemned it, most doctors disapproved and women who had abortions did not publicly admit it. If a pregnant woman went to an abortionist, she was an accomplice to the crime, and the abortionist was the criminal. If the woman was trying to self-abort, then she would be the criminal.

So, it’s hard to know how many abortions took place when abortions were illegal. Obviously, women didn’t tell anyone of their abortion because they might get arrested and so numbers back then are based on speculation and the number of women who ended up in hospital with sometimes life threatening complications. We’ll also never know how many women went through with pregnancies simply because they didn’t want to take the physical or legal risk of a backstreet abortion.

Back then, women had to resort to dangerous and sometimes deadly methods of abortion like throwing themselves downstairs, sticking coat hangers up themselves, or drinking poison. If they could afford it, they would go to an abortionist and pay exorbitant fees, the equivalent of around $2500 today.

Getting the abortion was only solved half the problem. Complications after the abortion if it turned septic could lead to women suffering from ill health, infertility or even death. In the mid-1930s, septic abortions were estimated to cause a quarter of New Zealand’s maternal deaths, but we really can never know the true figures of the number of women who died from botched abortions.

So let’s be clear: in societies where abortion is illegal women die. So people who call themselves ‘pro-life’ are being dishonest. They don’t care about women’s lives, and they’d to see us return to a situation where women die seeking illegal abortions. That’s not rhetoric, that’s a simple matter of fact.

Julie Grenfell’s story is in some ways typical of what came about due to the lack of sexual education, effective contraception, and the fear of an unwanted pregnancy in the conservative era of the 1950s. She had an abortion in 1956 in Wellington at 22 years old. She writes:

“Although I had read voraciously I had not really been exposed to sex education. Like most parents of their generation, sex was not a subject my parents felt comfortable discussing. I was really naïve … I was terrified of being pregnant. The social stigma and shame were a great deterrent to sex. There was a lot of talk around university and training college about what would happen if you let them go ‘too far’, whatever that meant. Contraception was limited and hard to get. I knew of young women who suddenly disappeared, “going up north” for a while. Consequently I began to worry when I missed my period and it was two weeks overdue. I felt pregnant and went to a woman doctor to have the pregnancy confirmed which she did. I can remember sitting there saying, “Oh, I can’t be!” She cheerfully told me not to worry. She was sure my mother would feel all right about it. I was sure my mother would not feel all right about it, and I certainly didn’t … My mind could only focus on one thing and that was to get an abortion. I felt desperate. No other option entered my head. Everything narrowed down to that one object. That is why abortion services will always be needed. The fear of prosecution and even the feat of death are insufficient to prevent abortions.”

Julie Grenfell’s insight about women seeking abortions regardless of its legal status is just as true today as it was back then. In 1997, World Health Organization researchers carried out one of the most comprehensive global study of abortions. They found that abortion rates are similar regardless of whether abortions were permitted legally or not. In the words of Dr. Paul Van Look, director of the W.H.O. Department of Reproductive Health and Research, “What we see is that the law does not influence a woman’s decision to have an abortion. If there’s an unplanned pregnancy, it does not matter if the law is restrictive or liberal.”

Fortunately, we don’t live in an era where abortions are illegal. The results of this are stark. New Zealand has not had a single death from a botched abortion since the 1970s. But it is only as recently as our mother’s generation that women would have still been living with the fear of having to seek out abortions illegally.  


With the baby boom after World War Two, attitude towards sex, birth control, and abortion began to shift, even amongst doctors. On the one hand capitalism was expanding rapidly, and facilitated the rise of women’s participation in the workforce. As well as this the large number of young people in society – unprecedented numbers under 25, in the 1960s and 1970s – and political rebellion forced change around old attitudes to sex and sexuality.

Women in New Zealand drew inspiration from the Women’s Liberation Movement developing globally, and demanded free healthcare, free childcare, free contraception, and abortion on demand. Groups like ALRANZ (the Abortion Law Reform Association) and WONAAC (the Women’s National Abortion Action Campaign) emerged and organised street protests, lobbied MPs, held huge public meetings and a network of activists prepared to stand up to the anti-choice forces and to promote abortion rights. The “Sisters Overseas Service” also played a very important role helping get women who needed terminations to Australia, where there were more liberalised services. And thanks to their efforts we live with the abortion services we have now. So what limited rights we have now were won. They came about as a result of struggle, of women and their allies kicking up a fuss, being noisy, not letting their needs go ignored. We need to remember that.

The Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act came out in 1977. The intention of this law was to limit women’s access to abortion. Most campaigners at the time saw it as a defeat, and no woman MP voted for it. So today, a generation on, women still rely for their abortion services on an Act voted for by only male MPs, and one which keeps abortion in the Crimes Act.

Still Fighting

That’s why we need to change the Act: Women still don’t get to decide whether to have an abortion or not. Under the act, abortions can only be granted to women in cases of “serious danger to the life or mental health of the mother, cases of severe mental or physical handicap of the fetus, incest, or severe mental subnormality of the mother”. In 2011, close to 98% of women needed abortions because it was a “danger to their mental health”.

So even though the majority of certifying consultants and GPs would approve abortions, and even though society’s attitudes towards abortion has changed greatly since the law was first drafted, women still need to jump through hoops not just to the GP, but a further twice more to certifying consultants to get an abortion. They’re being forced to describe as a risk of mental illness what should be seen as a simple decision.

This is impractical on many accounts. Two particular burdens stand out. One is that such a complicated system endangers the health of the women. It’s well known that the longer women wait to have an abortion the riskier this is for their health. For women in rural areas like the West Coast or Southland it is a big undertaking for them to get to an urban centre to meet two separate certifying consultants, and then again to travel for the abortion itself. Southland women generally have had to travel up to Christchurch for this. All of these complications create stress, uncertainty and inconveniences for the woman.

And two, this is an immense waste of money. When this government is making cuts left right and center to health in general, and to services we need, they are happy to see money getting wasted on an elaborate routine designed to make life difficult. So we should demand: get rid of the overly bureaucratic system and let women simply make the choice of abortion or not.

Abortion isn’t the highly controversial issue that it was in the 1970s. The current laws are outdated and unworkable and, for some women, particularly poor women, in rural areas, they pose real problems. But we’re not talking about deaths like we would be doing for much of the twentieth century. The tens of thousands of terminations show that many of us are getting the services we need. So we’re in a different stage of the struggle. Abortion rights have broad popular support, even though this is not reflected in political will by the mainstream parties.

But abortion rights are still something we need to keep fighting for because anti-abortionists here and overseas are always looking ways to restrict access to abortion. In the US, anti-abortion groups have relentlessly tried to defeat and push back the Roe vs. Wade decision that helped liberalise access to abortion in the United States.

More recently and closer to home, the mis-named Right to Life took the Abortion Supervisory Committee to court saying that essentially they were rubber stamping abortions. Current Minister of Justice Judith Collins, supported by Voice for Life, attempted once to amend legislation so that parental notification was needed before carrying out an abortion for anyone under 16 years of age.

Anti-abortion bigots still regularly harass and intimidate women seeking terminations – at Dunedin Hospital, disgustingly, they picket the hospital on the day women arrive to use the service. This is not just an abstract discussion. In Invercargill moves to provide termination had been met with threat to nurses, midwives and doctors. On Campbell Live last year Bill English, when he was asked to comment on these threats, refused to condemn them.

Capitalism and reproduction

Through much of Western history abortion has not always been illegal. Ideas and regulations about reproduction have always centered on the needs of capital. Ruling class opinion changes with the changing needs of the capitalist system. And the role of women within the system has changed a great deal over the last century.

In the United Kingdom, abortion only became illegal in the mid nineteenth century. New Zealand adopted and adapted these laws. Until that time, early abortions were widespread and legal. Abortions “before quickening” (fetal movement around the 5th month of pregnancy) were socially acceptable for many centuries as a means of controlling fertility.

The introduction of anti-abortion legislation began around the start of the nineteenth century and was rooted in the needs of a rapidly industrializing economy. Capitalism was rapidly expanding around the world. In the US for example, between 1870 and 1929, the output of US industry increased by fourteen times. This created an enormous demand for new labour. One of the ways this was filled was by pressuring working-class women and men to live in families in which women would be full-time homemakers and mothers, rather than fulltime workers outside the home.

Ruling class interests during this period lay with promoting high birthrates. In New Zealand, this was expressed in an anti-abortion, anti-birth control, eugenicism. Plunket founder Frederic Truby King argued that abortion along with birth control was to blame for a falling birth rate and would extinguish New Zealand’s white people.

Clearly we’re living in different times from then. Women now make up half the workforce. Improved living standards mean lower infant mortality and fertility rates for women. Improvements in birth control – especially the contraceptive pill – have allowed women to exercise more control in limiting pregnancy. Women thus become more desirable as workers to individual employers.

The system now requires women to bear responsibility for housework and childcare within the family as well as being workers. Most working mothers have two jobs: one paid, and the other unpaid in the home. And women workers’ control over pregnancy is necessary to maintain a stable workforce of lower paid women workers. That is why some capitalists support making abortion more accessible.

Why Socialists are Pro-Choice

For socialists the key argument is that women are more than incubators: they have the right to control their own bodies. No woman should be forced to continue a pregnancy if she doesn’t want to. Women need the right to abortion to control their own bodies and reproductive lives. And no woman should ever be asked to justify why she chose to have an abortion. We do not think some reasons are more morally acceptable than others. In a similar vein, we do not think that there’s a “normal” or optimum number of abortions to aim for. Every woman who needs one should be able to access an abortion speedily and safely.

Reproductive rights

But the right to abortion is just one aspect of a much larger issue of reproductive rights. Winning reproductive freedom involves a fight for the abortion rights of poor and working-class women. Even when abortion has been illegal, wealthy women have had the money to pay private doctors to obtain abortions, or to fly to Australia where abortion laws were liberalized earlier, while poor women faced the choice of carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term or risking their lives in an unsafe, illegal abortion. Anna Watson recognized this when she spoke about the abortion she got illegally in the 1950s. Her story is collected in Margaret Sparrow’s book:

“I recognized that the driving force behind my involvement in abortion issues was not that I had suffered; I hadn’t. I came from socialist-liberal parents with a Jewish heritage, and from this background I developed a deeply held sense of fairness and justice … I recognized that it was who and what you knew, where you lived, and how much money you had, which determined whether you had a safe abortion or not. I had safe abortions because I had the background, I had access to knowledge, I had money, and a health degree of self-esteem and self-confidence.”

So the fight for reproductive rights is also about class. It’s about providing abortion services safely and quickly and freely for all women. This is a question about society and how it’s organised. We do not make individual decisions in a vacuum. Being pro-choice means we need a health system that can deliver for women who need terminations – that means free abortion on demand. And we need a social system that can support women who choose to continue with pregnancies – that means defending the DPB, fighting against attacks on what is left of the welfare state, opposing the demonisation of solo mothers.

But reproductive rights is also about race, especially when you consider the eugenics of Truby King still had so much currency right up until the 1970s. The United States had mass sterilization programs targeting women who were “unfit” to bear children, including the mentally and physically disabled, prisoners, and the non-white poor. Large numbers of Black women, Latinas, and Native American women were sterilized against their will or without their knowledge. Similar things happened to Aboriginal women in Australia. While New Zealand saw nothing as systematic as the Unite States, there are definite echoes of this kind of policy in the treatment of Maori women historically, the breaking up of homes, the use of social services to police Maori whanau and so on. The beneficiary bashing of this latest government fits a pattern.

In May last year, Social Development Minister Paula Bennet announced that WINZ case managers would start recommending to women on benefits, and their daughters, to take contraception. The state intends prying into the most intimate and private areas of our life. If this wasn’t disgusting enough, Bennet went as far as to suggest that sterialisation was something the government was considering to prevent abusive parents having more children. She had to backtrack on this after the public outrage.

The fight for reproductive rights is also a fight for those who wish to have children but are denied that right. Lesbian and gay couples should have the right to raise children with full the legal and financial benefits and protections marriage currently gives heterosexual couples. Transgender people have become much more vocal in recent years in asserting their rights and struggle, and that’s a good thing. Abortion services – like health services generally – need to be made to respond to people’s needs, instead of us jumping through their hoops. That means recognizing that not all people who need abortions are going to identify as women.


I want to end by going ‘back to the future’, to the revolutionary heritage we’re trying to build on here in the International Socialists. Women’s rights, women’s liberation, aren’t separable from socialism – socialist politics, revolutionary politics has to put these questions at its heart. There’s no production without reproduction – we need to understand that.

Alexandra Kollontai was a leader in the Bolsheviks, the Russian revolutionary socialist group, at the start of the last century. She led Bolshevik work amongst working women. Our understanding, and medical technology, has changed since the Bolsheviks’ time; in the context of the early years of the last century, though, the Bolsheviks were right out in advance on this question, legalising abortion. While the Bolsheviks had a moral understanding of abortions as a “social evil”, they still understood that women should not be prosecuted for such and decriminalized abortions in 1920. Here’s how Kollontai spelled out the basic preconditions of civilized society:

“If every working woman was guaranteed the possibility of giving birth to her child in healthy conditions, with the appropriate care for herself and her child, the possibility of looking after the child during the first weeks of its life, the possibility of feeding him herself without the risk of loss of pay, this would constitute the first step to the designated end. If, in addition, the state and the community would undertake to build refuges for expectant and nursing women, to provide medical consultations for mother and child, and to supply high-quality milk and a layette, if there was a broad network of crèches, nursery schools and children’s centres where the working mother could leave her child with a quiet mind, this would be the second step towards the designated end.”

All Kollontai’s calling them is ‘steps to the designated end’ – full liberation. For her these are preconditions. How many of these do we have in NZ now? Free crèches? Guaranteed maternity leave without loss of pay? Free supplies of food? We have none of this – we’re still fighting for decent paid parental leave. So abortion rights are a start, an essential pre-component to our full democratic participation in society, our keeping our dignity and bodily autonomy, our control of ourselves. We have a much bigger world to win.  


I based a lot of this talk on Sharon Smith’s excellent book Women and Socialism. An updated version of this collection is coming out later this year – it is highly recommended. Sandra Bloodworth’s Fighting for Women’s Liberation Today also informs my outlook. Margaret Sparrow’s book is a wonderful history. We have written on abortion rights in the ISO before – look at the Women’s Liberation category for more.

Image credit: ALRANZ