Abortion Rights Under Attack

The defeat of Roe. v Wade in the US has had widespread ramifications. One of these has been the energising of the anti-abortion movement globally, and New Zealand is no exception.  There was at least one small rally of anti-abortion activists in Wellington in March 2023, who gathered on Parliament Lawn to voice their opposition to abortion. This protest was observed by pro-abortion campaigners, who were alarmed to see that while the gathering was still relatively small and insignificant, they did manage to gather around 50 anti-abortion protesters and in their speeches made explicit reference to  the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the encouragement they took from this development. The attempted speaking tour the same month by anti-trans campaigner Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull (aka Posie Parker), which was spectacularly derailed by massive trans-positive protests, raised the issue again, as Keen-Minshull also pushes an anti-abortion agenda. She and her supporters seek to deny minors access to abortion and birth control. While Keen-Minshull’s transphobic politics were at the forefront of media coverage and activist opposition, her anti-abortion stance was not lost on observers, with the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand (ALRANZ) coming out in support of the counter-protests. 

A protest in Wellington in late 2022 drew attention to these issues, and is worth revisiting. On December 3rd 2022, thousands of anti-abortion “March for Life” protestors faced off against pro-abortion counter-protestors in Wellington. “The defeat of Roe v. Wade has been incredibly energising for the pro-choice community here in New Zealand, it has shown us change is possible,” said March for Life spokesperson Kate Cormack at this protest. Both Labour and National say they won’t be touching New Zealand abortion laws, but March for Life and other anti-abortion groups are hoping that those parties will change their minds. “They are saying that now, but it is an election year next year, so let’s wait and see,” Cormack says. Speaking for the pro-abortion counter-protestors, activist Michelle Ducat asserted that one group’s religious beliefs should not impose on the rights of others, including the right to access abortion as healthcare: “The vast majority of people support healthcare in New Zealand and don’t want to go in the same wrong direction as the US.” 

In the context of an emboldened anti-abortion right, the kind of counter-protest which the pro-abortion forces organised on this occasion will continue to be very important. It took action on the streets to win abortion rights in the first place, both here and in the US, and experience tells us that anti-abortion forces do not simply disappear if they are ignored. The speeches from this rally illustrate the importance of abortion rights and the urgency of the call to defend them. Valerie Morse, a long-time campaigner for abortion rights and other left wing causes, spoke about how her mother worked in an abortion clinic. As she spoke the anti-abortion crowd jeered at the supposed contradiction between being a working mother and being pro-abortion. This is really no contradiction at all given the fact that a large proportion of abortions are given to people who already have children. Morse described how as a small child she bore witness to the assault of her mother by anti-abortion extremists as her mother was leaving her workplace. 

Te Ao Pritchard, a wahine Māori representative from the Polynesian Panthers Network, acknowledged indigenous women and their struggles for reproductive freedom in her speech at this rally. She spoke about the legacy of colonialism and the impact it had on her family, including the struggle to preserve culture and language (as well as speaking about the racism faced by her father who migrated from Samoa). Pritchard spoke about reproductive rights from a Māori perspective, saying that she believed having an abortion is not disrupting life from a spiritual point of view. She spoke of her own experiences with reproductive issues, recounting the three times she had been pregnant. She spoke of the sadness, fear, shame and pain she experienced when she had a miscarriage. She spoke of some of these feelings returning when she decided to have an abortion the second time she got pregnant, but also of the relief she felt. She described the personal ways that she had memorialised and honoured the pregnancies she had not carried to term. Pritchard also described the anxiety that she felt when she carried a pregnancy to term and gave birth to twins; of the responsibility she felt to look after her own future and those of her children. She said that she could not have managed without the help of her whanau and her community. She felt it was important to teach her children that they have control over the wairoa they are given and that they get to choose what to do with that wairoa. Stories like this illustrate the complex personal relationships that people have with reproductive issues, personal relationships that are disrespected and violated by the callous rhetoric of anti-abortion groups. 

Terry Bellamak spoke about abortion as healthcare and highlighted the importance of fighting back against stigma:

The Council for Women’s Gender Equality survey reports that 74% of New Zealanders support abortion on request. Abortion is healthcare. Abortion law reform [in New Zealand] has seen the number of abortions stay much the same, but they happen earlier now, a clear sign of an improving healthcare system. Treating abortion as healthcare improves abortion care just as promised. This is an excellent time for the Wellington Community to get together and tell the extremist group of religious busybodies that we do not agree with their regressive views about feminism and pregnant people. “Love them both” is a lie, an attempt to frame pregnant people as too dumb to understand what abortion is. They understand abortion just fine! That is why they go to such great lengths to access them for their own good reasons, even in places where it could get them arrested. Forcing people to remain pregnant and give birth against their will is not now, never was, and never will be the moral high ground.

“March for Life” is not a celebration of life. It is a circus of abortion stigma. Now that abortion is clearly mainstream, the only weapon anti-abortion busybodies have to punish people getting abortions is stigma: the hate speech thrown around outside abortion services (and probably at the march today), and the intimidation tactics to remind people that violence is a possibility. That shows your values. One in four people with a uterus will access abortion at some time, they should not have to worry about their physical and emotional safety while accessing healthcare. Your support for bodily autonomy, moral agency and our human rights means our community is behind us, is behind everyone who needs abortion, that in itself is a huge blow against abortion stigma.

Shōmi Yoon spoke on behalf of the International Socialist Organisation, emphasising the importance of continuing to fight, not only to defend and extend abortion rights, but also to counter gendered oppression of all kinds:

It is so good to be here, to be part of this kaupapa, to say that we will not go back! [the crowd echoed these words back as a chant at various points throughout her speech]. We are not going back to those days where we died to get access to abortion. We are not going back to those days where we had no choice about our reproductive rights. We are not going back to those days when the government, the State, and the medical system would tell us what to do with our own bodies. We will not go back to those days where we were treated as criminals for accessing a medical procedure. And we are definitely not going back to those days when we had to live in fear, where we had to live in shame for accessing what is a medical procedure.

We’re not gonna stop here either. We’ll keep fighting until abortion is available on-demand; until it is accessible and affordable. We’ll keep fighting until we’re all free from gendered violence, from gendered oppression: oppression of women, oppression of LGBTQ whanau, and oppression towards our trans whanau. And we’ll keep fighting for the next generation. So that the burden of raising the next generation is not just in the private hands of the home, instead it is the village that raises the child, as Te Ao was talking about. So that we are part of a society that takes collective ownership and collective responsibility for raising the next generation. We’ll keep fighting until we see reproductive rights for all: for all who want children, for all who don’t want children. We’ll keep fighting for as long as these bigots think they can dictate to us what we do with our bodies. It’s our bodies – our choice! [the crowd echoed this back as a chant]

Yoon’s call to push beyond defensive politics is important. Recent years have seen a troubling rise in reactionary politics of all kinds, and in particular a backlash against women and gender minorities, and attempts to curtail reproductive and sexual freedoms. The dazzling displays of solidarity that were organised in response to Keen-Minshull’s attempted speaking tour show us that the forces allied against this reaction can be powerful when they are given the chance to unite and hit the streets. These trans-positive, pro-abortion protests began as defensive rallies against a reactionary individual, but by their sheer scale and their success in driving away Keen-Minshull and her supporters they managed to become something more. They were an opportunity to celebrate and affirm trans lives and reproductive rights, and to raise demands that would improve people’s lives, such as better access to gender-affirming healthcare for trans people. We should take lessons from these recent protests forward in our continuing struggle for reproductive rights and sexual freedom.