The challenging issue of abortions

22:22, Jul 05 2012

Termination of pregnancy, or abortion, is a very challenging issue and one fraught with emotion, zeal and subjective opinion.

Although we do not see the violent protests and terror attacks that some societies experience there is no shortage of passion here in New Zealand when it comes to the general issue. It is now the subject of debate and protest in Southland as it is proposed that termination of pregnancy services are to resume at the hospital this year.

This is an issue that ultimately sits before me and my fellow Southern District Health Board members as we are the funders of these services.

Like most New Zealanders I have been confronted with this issue before. When my partner and I were told that the diagnosis for our unborn son was not good we were contacted by clinical professionals three times in 48 hours to inform us that we could have the pregnancy terminated if we chose to even though he was a week older than the final date allowed. The specialist had already agreed to write the letter recommending termination if we so wished.

The first time it was mentioned to us we were taken aback as our minds had gone to coping with early surgery and dealing with the complications of the wee babe's affliction. The idea of termination had not entered our thoughts.

When we absorbed what was being said to us we realised that this was not only a reasonable discussion to have with us but it was actually one they were most likely obliged to have.


Anyway we made our choices and, to be honest, it was not a path we would have gone down. That said, I have also been involved in nationwide bio-ethics debates about unborn children that can be diagnosed with the most horrible conditions which mean that their lives would be agony from the moment they are born and the case for termination is absolutely compelling.

But the general issue of publicly funded terminations within current policy and practice in New Zealand has forced me to consider new information in a different way.

Last year there were just over 60,000 births in New Zealand. Alongside about 30,000 deaths that was net growth of 30,000, not counting immigration. What surprised me was that there were also about 15,800 pregnancy terminations last year as well.

That is the equivalent of 25 per cent of all the births if each of those unwanted pregnancies had gone full term. I had no idea that this was the extent of terminations performed in New Zealand. No doubt a percentage of those are for sound, medical reasons, and others will be due to the capability of the mother and family to cope but I believe we all accept that a significant number of these terminations are a result of modern life choices.

Young women who are faced with the prospect of their ambitions being disrupted, their careers destroyed, their ability to make choices about future relationships compromised have it within their power to exercise a choice - so they do.

A controversial study conducted in the United States attempted to understand why crime started to decline so dramatically in 1992.

Abortion was legalised in 1973 and, considering that males aged 18 to 24 are the most likely demographic to commit crime, the researchers from Yale concluded that abortion, i.e. the absence of unwanted children, was the principal factor that led to a reduction in crime 18 years later that started in 1992 and reduced even further in 1995.

On its own this study is by no means a justification for abortion but it does beg the question what the social impact might be had there been an extra 100,000 unwanted births over the past 10 years. We certainly saw the impact of stranger adoptions and poor foster home environments blossoming in to the New Zealand jail population during the 1970s and 1980s.

Another challenging message has been from medical and nursing professionals opposed to termination of pregnancy services. Amongst the many opinions, some moralistic, some emotionally charged and others measured and well argued, there was one voice that resonated with me, both the angst and responsibility.

A rural GP with many years experience shared how he had, for a time, refused to conduct terminations because he found them abhorrent. But then he realised that if he did not he was merely expecting another professional to carry out something that they, no doubt, also had no pleasure in performing.

In today's society we do allow for these procedures, we will not turn back the clock and allow unsafe, backroom clinics to re-emerge or expect distressed young women to seek terminations abroad.

With as much information available as possible my responsibility is clear.

The Press