Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said these words in a televised leaders debate in the lead up to the elections. She is the first leader to bring up the issue of decriminalising abortion in a forum so close to an election. It came as a breath of fresh political air. Not because Ardern was taking a lead, but because – finally – she was a politician reflecting the existing sentiment out in wider society. Aotearoa is pro-choice. The number of women who have had terminations over the past thirty years is one measure of this. And yet, in Parliament, conservative views prevail. And – until this campaign – few Labour politicians have had the courage of their commitments to make their pro-choice stance meaningful.
Pro-choice activists and people around Aotearoa were heartened and encouraged by Ardern’s commitment. In the debate, she clearly signalled her pro-choice beliefs that “people need to make their own decisions”. She continued to say that “women who want access to have it as their right too. This is about everyone being able to make their own decision.”
The fight to decriminalise abortion is as old as the out-of-date and sexist laws themselves. Women’s ability to control our bodies is dictated to by a law that’s more than four decades old – before marriage equality and certainly before same-sex relationships were recognised.
Groups like Abortion Law Reform Association (NZ) and other reproductive rights activists welcomed Ardern’s support. They have been campaigning for decades for law change. The current sexist law does not give the choice to access an abortion to the women but rather delegates that choice to a GP and two further certifying consultants. The process, as we’ve written previously in Socialist Review, is time-consuming, costly, and demeaning for the women involved.
Ardern’s commitment has raised expectations, and we need to hold the Labour Party to these commitments. For many involved in the campaign, the relationship with the Labour Party is bittersweet. In 2010, when Steve Chadwick, then a Labour Party MP and former midwife, tried to highlight the issue of decriminalisation through a private member’s bill. She was met with stony silence from within her own party. The bill was killed within a month. Before this, despite Labour being in government for nine years and despite the then Prime Minister Helen Clark being prochoice, the Party made no attempts towards decriminalisation. Abortion was always sidelined as being “too divisive” or “too controversial”.
We need to hold the Labour Party to account this time. We also need to ensure that our voices are heard and that we can’t be sidelined again. We know that over 12,800 abortions were performed last year, and according to ALRANZ’s polls, a majority of New Zealanders support abortion becoming legal. Abortion is a medical and health-related procedure like any other and it’s high time this was recognised and removed from the Crimes Act.