Fighting to Choose: the Abortion Rights Struggle in New Zealand

[Alison McCulloch is a freelance journalist and abortion rights activist based in Tauranga.  Her history of the abortion rights struggle in New Zealand, Fighting to Choose, will be published by Victoria University Press next month. We spoke to Alison about her book and the campaign.]

Alison, you’re an active member of ALRANZ, the pro-choice organisation. Could you tell us a little about how you came to be involved in the campaign for abortion rights? What motivated you to start researching this topic?

I’ve been a feminist for as long as I can remember, and securing the right to access contraception and abortion is a major part of what I think it means to be a feminist. In the late 1980s, I was doing some writing for the feminist magazine Broadsheet and I interviewed Di Cleary, one of the key women in the Women’s National Abortion Action Campaign, which was very active in the 1970s and 1980s. I was drawn to WONAAC because of its feminist focus, but ultimately WONAAC “ran out of steam”, to quote something Sandra Coney once wrote about the demise of the Women’s Liberation Movement, which left ALRANZ as really the only group working to secure reproductive justice for all New Zealanders.

I had been studying and working overseas as a journalist for 14 years from the 1990s, so I wasn’t involved in the abortion issue over that time, but when I came back home in 2007 and met up with the WONAAC women, they were eager for someone to do a history of the movement. And I was eager to work on something that I felt strongly about. At first, it was going to be something like a pamphlet, but it just grew and grew — there is so much material out there, including some excellent theses and dissertations. But I found it surprising, maybe a little depressing, that there hadn’t really been a serious book from a pro-choice perspective focusing on what I think is such an important, not to mention interesting, political struggle.

So much of that history has been lost now, though, hasn’t it? We sell Pat Rosier’s anthology from Broadsheet on our literature tables, and it’s amazing to uncover what a rich history of activism around women’s liberation there is in Aotearoa. Two questions come from this: firstly, when we campaign around abortion laws, many young people we meet seem to have little idea that the law is as restrictive as it stands today. There’s this myth around that the 1977 Act was some kind of compromise. What connections are there between the campaigns you’ve researched and our own situation today? What sort of lessons do you think we might learn from the last phase of the struggle?

The fact that there is a relatively liberal abortion practice in Aotearoa New Zealand despite our conservative abortion law — abortion access is controlled by the Crimes Act 1961 — does mean that a lot of people aren’t aware of both how restrictive the law is and how it does harm. For example, because of the law, abortions here tend to be performed later than they should be, which is not best medical practice and is not good for women. The law has also hindered uptake of the use of medical abortions, that is, use of the abortion pill. Finally, aside from the important health and access issues, having abortion in the Crimes Act plays a big part in reinforcing abortion stigma and shaming.

In terms of the campaigns then versus today: Aotearoa New Zealand has certainly moved on from the 1970s. I think the importance of safe accessible abortion is generally accepted by mainstream society, and some would argue that this counts as a victory. There’s definitely truth to that, but there’s still a powerful constituency preventing any action to bring our laws into the modern era. The most fierce opponents of abortion are generally the same people we saw out campaigning against marriage equality: conservative morals groups and some of the churches. We saw the leadership of the Catholic Church fight tooth and nail late last year against plans to provide abortion services in Invercargill. (This wasn’t a law change, but was just to ensure Southlanders wouldn’t have to travel to Dunedin for abortion care.) Those coalitions of abortion rights opponents and social conservatives are one thing that hasn’t changed since the 1970s. What’s more, those coalitions had a lot of financial support back then — much much more than pro-choice groups did — and that’s also the same today. Another thing that hasn’t changed is that in the 1970s almost no politicians were prepared stick their necks out on abortion rights, and that’s still the case today, with a few notable exceptions. (One of those is the former Labour MP Steve Chadwick, who was working on a decriminalisation bill in 2010.)

In the book, I do try to draw a few lessons from the past. The first is that we shouldn’t be defensive about abortion rights. Anti-abortionists aren’t defensive about calling abortion murder, about wanting abortion to be banned from the so-called “moment of conception”, about calling contraception part of a “culture of death”. We shouldn’t be defensive about insisting that the person who is pregnant should be the one to make the decision about that pregnancy. (MPs are really the only ones who get to exercise their consciences on abortion.) But we are defensive. That surprises me in some ways because I think it should be easy for those who tend toward the pro-choice position to separate their personal view — for example, whether or not they themselves would ever have an abortion — from the clear and certain knowledge that in the end they shouldn’t get to make that decision for someone else.

Another lesson is that abortion is not just about abortion, for either side. Anti-abortionists don’t just want abortion banned but, as I’ve said, they want to clamp down on sexual expression, on having your gender identity respected, on women’s rights and so on. Have a look at Right to Life’s media release the day after the marriage equality bill passed. (It was headlined “Same Sex ‘Marriage’ and Parliament’s Day of Shame” and here’s a quote to give you the flavour: “Homosexual marriage is the logical conclusion for a culture that celebrates sterility. It is part of a culture of death. We have a culture that has rejected God’s plan that places procreation as the ultimate end of sexual activity.”) We need to keep pointing out the wider agenda of the anti-abortion movement, and the links they themselves make between abortion rights and other social and moral issues.

The final point is that this is a permanent struggle. Because it’s about more than abortion, it will never go away and it will never end. That isn’t meant to sound depressing, it’s just by way of reminding people who care about these issues that it’s really a long, persistent slog. More positively, it means that every pro-choice thing you do really does make a difference because it helps sustain the movement for the long haul. Specifically, we need to make sure that even when there doesn’t seem to be much going on, organisations like ALRANZ, which have this important institutional memory and expertise, don’t “run out of steam” and disappear. Sure, they can and should be changed and modernised and be injected new people and ideas, but starting from scratch would be a huge setback. After all, it’s not like the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is going to be starting from scratch, is it?

Your book certainly sounds like a must-read for everyone interested in reproductive rights, and women’s and democratic rights more generally. Since this is a promotional interview, we really should end with some promotion! What would you like to see come out of this book’s publication? You’re launching it with a “Pro-Choice Highway.” Could you tell us a little bit about this?

Thanks. I’d like more people to become more aware of both the recent history of abortion rights struggles, what the current law and practice are and why we need to change them. The Prochoice Highway is an outreach project I’m organising with ALRANZ and others aimed at doing just that. Over the winter, we hope to hold some meetings in the main centres to talk about issues raised in the book; then in the spring — around September — the Highway will actually hit the highways. We’ll be travelling the country with a stall of books, information and activist material which we hope to take to 50 towns in both the North and South islands. So if any of your readers can help us organise a meeting or would like to see the Highway stall come through their town or want to be involved, do get in touch.

Finally, there’s one thing I try to make clear in the book and that I’d particularly like to say to ISO readers: in the 1970s, at the height of the battle over the current law, socialists and communists were among the most committed abortion rights activists. Sadly, there was some “red-baiting” that went on, but their contribution was hugely important, and I know from what I see of activism today that this is still the case. So, thank you!