Dave Armstrong: Abortion law not just archaic but hypocritical

Pupils from Wellington High School protest outside Wellington Hospital in support of women wishing to have abortions.

Pupils from Wellington High School protest outside Wellington Hospital in support of women wishing to have abortions.

OPINION: A man, let's call him Bill, had a wife and gorgeous children whom he loved dearly. But he decided he didn't want any more children, and nor did his wife. They discussed various forms of contraception and agreed that the best thing was for Bill to have a vasectomy.

However, when Bill arrived at the clinic there was a line of older people, many wearing head scarves, praying for him. Their banners reminded Bill of all the potential lives he was stopping by having a vasectomy. The protesters didn't say anything, but he resented the passive-aggressive tone of their protest.

"I want to have a vasectomy,'' said Bill to the receptionist, so he was ushered into a room to see a counsellor.

Anti-abortion protesters outside Southland Hospital.

Anti-abortion protesters outside Southland Hospital.

"Under the Crimes Act it's illegal to receive a vasectomy on demand," said the counsellor. ''Have you considered the alternatives?"

Bill resented the intrusion of his privacy but patiently repeated the conversation he'd had with his wife. When Bill finally saw the doctor he went through it all again.

"Is having a vasectomy going to seriously endanger your physical health?"

Bill laughed. "I've cancelled tomorrow's squash game, but apart from that ..."

The doctor moved on. "What about your mental health?"

"Get out of here," said Bill.

"Just play the game," hissed the doctor. "If you say your mental health will be seriously endangered then I can authorise a vasectomy."

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Bill couldn't believe the hypocrisy involved but agreed to the doctor's request.

"Great," said the doctor, "now we need to get one more doctor to authorise that your mental health would be seriously endangered by not having a vasectomy, and we can perform the procedure."

The above scenario sounds ridiculous when applied to men and vasectomies yet it is exactly what New Zealand women with unwanted pregnancies go through when seeking an abortion.

Why? Because of a badly-designed law, written as a compromise way back in 1977. Back then, the large "pro-life" faction had the support of many socially conservative MPs, and a large organisation called the Society for Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC), which included many religious figures.

On the liberal "pro-choice" side were many urban Labour MPs and a few from National. ALRANZ (Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand) was the main pro-abortion organisation and included a number of feminists and health professionals.

Although I have always disagreed with the "pro-life" anti-abortion message, I did respect SPUC supporters in that they often based their position on deeply held moral and religious beliefs.

Forty years later, society is more secular and liberal, so when people like Bill English – whom I suspect still finds abortion repugnant – discuss abortion they tend to keep quiet about their religious beliefs. Rather than saying, "I am morally opposed to abortion and don't want any further liberalisation of the law," last week English stated on TV that he was quite happy with the current law, even though an increasing number of New Zealanders are finding it outdated, intrusive and hypocritical.

Last week the Labour and Green parties agreed with the head of the Abortion Supervisory Committee that the archaic law needed updating. ACT's David Seymour added his support.

So why is our abortion legislation still based on an archaic system that involves not one but two doctors granting abortions, often on the spurious grounds that if they didn't the majority of women who request the procedure would seriously risk their mental health?

Justice Minister Amy Adams tells us that there is no Government plan to alter the bill. Surely with almost assured majority support, a brave MP could do what Fran Wilde and Louisa Wall have done over gay rights, and bring in a member's bill that  seeks abortion on demand?

With the ballot system that's easier said than done. In the meantime, our doctors will obey New Zealand's Hypocritic ​Oath and continue to give a nod and a wink to "seriously endangered mental health" while our politicians furiously debate the really big conscience issues of the day such as lost airport baggage and whether Jacinda has achieved anything.

* An earlier version of this article said "In Australia, Canada and Britain you could just ask for a vasectomy but not in New Zealand." The author implied, using the analogy, that abortion is available on request in Australia, Canada and Britain. This is correct for Canada but not for Britain and the majority of states in Australia.

 - The Dominion Post


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