Editorial: Free contraception

The Government's modest proposal to provide long-term, reversible contraception for free to a small group of welfare beneficiaries is only a tiny part of its package of welfare reforms.

It has, however, attracted a disproportionately large amount of criticism in the last few days. Critics have denounced it as, among other things, offensive, coercive, and discriminatory. It is none of these things. In order to attack it, the critics have set up a straw man and proceeded to knock him down. Looked at coolly and dispassionately, though, without an overlay of overheated, alarmist rhetoric, the idea is a small one which, while it is no silver bullet, might do some good in breaking the terrible cycle of deprivation for some people and will certainly do no harm.

The proposal is projected to cost only $1 million out of a package of proposals costing a total of $287.5 million over four years. Under it, women on a benefit and their daughters aged 16 to 19 would be eligible to have long-term reversible contraception fully funded by a special-needs grant. The grant would cover such things as intra-uterine devices (IUDs) and contraceptive implants. The cost of such devices and the medical procedures required to administer them is undoubtedly a deterrent to those who might otherwise want them.

Since this kind of contraception applies only to women some have seen it as an example of institutionalised discrimination against them. This is nonsense. True, sexual relationships likely to result in children necessarily involve men. Unfortunately, at present there is no long-term reversible contraception for men. If there were, the policy could just as easily be applied to them. But women must bear children and it is a sad fact that feckless men too often impregnate women and then leave them to bear and raise them alone. While one may wish that were not so, we must deal with the world as it is not as how we might wish it were.

The Conservative Party leader, Colin Craig, has suggested that the policy will derogate from the individual responsibility that all must have for their actions. That is beside the point. Of course it would be far better if beneficiaries did not have unwanted children they could not afford, but the reality is that they do and the question is what can be done to try to reduce it.

A more telling criticism, from a range of critics such as Green party co-leader Metiria Turei, Associate Social Development Minister Tariana Turia and the Leader of the Opposition, David Shearer, is that beneficiaries may feel coerced into seeking contraception for fear of losing their benefits and that it is inappropriate for Work and Income New Zealand to be involved in the process. That criticism, however, appears to misstate the process. The aim, as it appears now, is to make the grant for the contraception available to those who want it. There is no suggestion of compulsion and no reason, on the face of it, why anyone should feel compelled. Even if it is conceded that some overzealous Winz staff may overstep the mark, there are any number of outside observers to correct them when the do. Moreover, the contraception will have to be administered by a doctor, whose ethical standards would oblige him or her to be sure the procedure is the true wish of the patient.

This proposal may not go far in dealing with the problem of overburdened mothers on welfare but it is a small step in the right direction.

The Press