Green light

I’ve always found the Green Party a bit of an enigma. Plenty of good social justice policies that fit my lefty-leaning perspective, well thought-out ideas on energy and transport and some more pragmatic economic policies than in the past. Yet they remain stubbornly resistant to evidence-based arguments for the use of technologies like cisgenics to increase the productivity of our farming industries. New Zealand will never be one big organic farm and the Greens would make a lot more progress politically if they were prepared to compromise on this.

You have to admire their principled approach, although this would be tested if they ever find themselves in government. That said, I respect them immensely for having their courage to put forward a cohesive policy on abortion law reform.

New Zealand’s abortion laws are woefully outdated and right out of place in the Crimes Act. It is long overdue for abortion services to be regulated under health legislation along with other reproductive services, and not treated as a crime. Successive Labour and National Governments have lacked the guts to update abortion laws, mainly because both parties have their share of social and religious conservatives and are afraid of alienating part of their constituency.

Former Labour MP Steve Chadwick’s proposal to take abortion out of the Crimes Act and remove the requirement for the approval of two certifying consultants was swiftly derailed by a well-organised and shrill “pro life” movement. The Labour leader at the time, Phil Goff, hung Chadwick out to dry saying he “hadn’t thought much about it”, and his counterpart John Key showed similar cowardice. To this day Key insists the current law is working fine – something that would be challenged by any woman having to negotiate the ridiculous and paternalistic obstacles put in their path to ending an unwanted pregnancy.

Chadwick’s attempt was doomed from the start, not only by the lack of backbone shown by political leaders, but by the fixation of media and critics on the 24-week gestation limit. In fact only a tiny fraction of abortions are carried out anywhere near this point, and those that are are almost always cases of severe fetal abnormality or health risk to the mother.

Anyone who doubts the compassion and humanity of those who work in the challenging field of late-term abortion should watch the documentary “After Tiller”. It’s a remarkably heart-warming story. (Tiller was the practitioner who was brutally murdered in his church by a “pro life” extremist.)

Abortion rates in New Zealand are actually falling. There are probably multiple reasons, but the wider availability of effective long-acting contraception is undoubtedly a factor. Yet all is not well. Access is still difficult for many women and the unfair stigma around abortion remains.

Because so much stigma remains, women who’ve had the procedure don’t want to make a lot of noise about it. Yet about one in three adult women in New Zealand will have had an abortion. Unless you live in a convent or monastery you will likely have friends, colleagues or family who have had an abortion at some stage and then just got on with their lives.

A lie constantly trotted out by the pro-lifers is that abortion is dangerous to women’s physical health. A recent United States study showed that the risk of mortality associated with childbirth is 14 times that of legally induced abortion. Morbidity risk is also higher for pregnancies carried to term than for women having abortions.

Similarly, the pro-lifers will tell you that women who have had abortions will suffer from mental health problems as a result. A comprehensive research review in 2011 by the Academy of Royal Medical Colleges in the UK showed this to be another patent lie. Women who have abortions are no more likely to suffer mental health problems than those who carry pregnancies to term. If they do suffer, it is often because they have been stigmatised by partners and others.

Predictably, the announcement of the Greens’ policy was met with a barrage of vitriol by the anti-abortion lobby and dinosaur columnists like Karl du Fresne (“So what are the Greens trying to prove? Were the 14,745 abortions in 2012 not enough for them?”).

In fact the Party had to plead with those commenting on their Facebook page to play nice and cut the abuse. It’s always amused me that those who claim to be defending the sanctity of human life are capable of the vilest abuse and threats of violence. It was encouraging, however, to see as well-reasoned editorial in the Sunday Star-Times (15 June) calling for reform – no doubt they will be heaped with opprobrium in next week’s letters.

The pro choice lobby, now including the Greens, generally engage in the debates with dignity and reason and I applaud them for that.

So stick to your guns, Greens. If you do get the chance to form part of a Government after 20 September, don’t get sidetracked by genetic engineering and organic farming. This is an issue that really does affect people’s lives.

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