Reproductive rights in Aotearoa: Organising in a post-Roe World

Organising for reproductive rights in contemporary Aotearoa.
Image from RNZ/Yvette McCullough

By TERRY BELLAMAK. Written for Fightback’s magazine issue on Organisation. Subscribe to our magazine, or e-publication here.

The United States Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v Wade in Dobbs v Jackson struck at the heart of bodily autonomy in the country that had billed itself as the soul of democratic civil rights. People all over the world saw the spectre of religious authoritarianism cast a shadow on the USA.

And spines stiffened across the planet. Roe’s demise has resulted in an outpouring of outrage, dismay and resolve.

Here in Aotearoa, the news came at a moment when the Ministry of Health was trying to implement our new legalised abortion regime. In 2020 Parliament finally reformed New Zealand’s antiquated, regressive abortion laws that required pregnant people to declare their mental fragility in order to come within the grounds for abortion under the Crimes Act 1961. We were in a place of hope and change.

The bad news from the USA was a tonic to the people who oppose abortion in New Zealand – they had not had anything to celebrate for a long time. The day the Dobbs decision overturning Roe was issued, National MP Simon O’Connor, who promised divine vengeance in Latin when the Abortion Legislation Act 2020 passed, posted on Facebook “Today is a good day.” Not long after, when a 10 year old had to travel to Indiana to abort her rapist’s baby, Mr O’Connor had nothing to say.

Of course, National’s leader Christopher Luxon had slapped a fairly tight muzzle on O’Connor, in the hope that he wouldn’t continue to say things the vast majority of New Zealanders find appalling.

Luxon was trying to gloss over his own stated view that “abortion is tantamount to murder.” It took him several tries to get the words right, but he finally promised National would not seek to repeal the Abortion Legislation Act 2020, nor reduce funding for abortion care.

Whether the National party’s efforts to dive for the centre on abortion are believable is another matter. The spectacle of Supreme Court nominees promising Roe was safe during their confirmation hearings is a warning against believing anti-abortion worthies who have shown they are willing to lie to get what they want.

The reason for their efforts is simple. The vast majority of New Zealanders favour abortion rights.

We are the majority

The cultural and political situation in Aotearoa is very different from the USA.

In the USA, nine unelected justices of the Supreme Court can overturn laws without meaningful challenge from any other branch of government. The framers never formed an opinion on that governmental structure, because it did not exist when the Constitution was written. That power only arose in 1803 as a result of the case of Marbury v Madison.

Until Dobbs, successive Supreme Courts have followed the rules of precedent that support the Rule of Law. Oral argument in Dobbs, and in cases heard since, has given rise to the impression that the six conservative justices who form a majority voting bloc no longer consider themselves bound by precedent, or even by good faith.

In New Zealand, parliamentary sovereignty means the most powerful branch of government is the one most accountable to voters. I used to have to defend the New Zealand courts’ inability to overturn unconstitutional laws to my American friends. They now see that arrangement has a downside.

Aotearoa is also very different culturally. Religion plays a much smaller role in New Zealand society. In the USA, 63% of adults identify as Christian, while 29% (and growing) affiliate with no religion.[1] In New Zealand, however, the largest group by far is No Religion at 48.2%, while the next highest religious grouping is Anglican at 6.7%.[2]

According to the most recent NCW Gender Attitudes Survey, the vast majority of New Zealanders support legal abortion on request, at 74%.[3] This is higher than it was during law reform, when support ebbed and flowed in the high 60s. Anti-abortion activists in New Zealand are losing ground.

But support for abortion is not a difference between New Zealand and the USA; it is a similarity. It is also a warning. There is danger in complacency of the sort that gripped some politicians in the USA for over 40 years. Those folks thought anti-abortion groups were like a dog who chases cars – catching one would be next to impossible and highly dangerous for the dog. But the dog caught the car.

Here in New Zealand, from the 1980s on through the 2010s, it wasn’t complacency so much as exhaustion that made abortion the topic that few politicians would approach voluntarily. Unlike successive governments, Kiwis supported abortion rights throughout the 1970s. Most considered the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act 1977 far too restrictive. In 1978 abortion rights groups submitted a petition calling for its repeal, signed by over 320,000 people. To put that in perspective, the total population of New Zealand at the time was only 3.12 million. That’s over 10% of the population. Parliament buried the petition.

We cannot let abortion drop from public attention again.

So, the question for organisers here is how to harness this moment of resolution and anger to further the cause of human rights, bodily autonomy, and equality for everyone.

We need to be vocal in supporting reproductive rights internationally in countries where the fight for legalisation continues, or has returned. We also need to advance reproductive rights here in Aotearoa. We need to take stock of what we want, and of whom we must demand it.

These matters fall into two broad categories:

  • Tactical changes needed to make good on the promise of abortion law reform
  • Societal changes that make the above a lot easier to achieve

Tactical demands

Safe areas

One thing we need is more safe areas faster. In order to get the Safe Areas Bill over the line, supporters in Parliament had to acquiesce to a convoluted, Rube Goldberg process to create safe areas, involving two cabinet ministers, a personalised map-drawing exercise undertaken by the Ministry of Health, and an Order in Council. The process takes between three and six months, and is so labour-intensive the Ministry only accepts applications in six week intakes every four months.

You might have thought the premise that harassing people is not what free speech is for would be self-evident, yet here we are.

Who can influence the process to make it go as fast as possible? The Ministry of Health goes pretty much flat out until it makes a recommendation to the Minister. At that point, the process can slow to glacial. Cabinet does lots of business, and the triage process may or may not favour safe areas.

This is a moment when pressure can be useful. The speed with which Cabinet deals with each safe area demonstrates how the government values the dignity and safety of people seeking abortion care. Given the Ministry’s vetting process, approval should be a rubber stamp.

If National forms the next government, this is an area where they can slow down the process of improving access to abortion care without breaking Luxon’s promise not to repeal or defund abortion. They could just … not do anything with the Ministry’s recommendation, leaving abortion patients at the mercy of National’s Christian Taliban Caucus and their friends with the gory, misleading signs.

Paying for care that should be free

Right now, most people (everyone except under 22s at Family Planning) who want LARCs (long acting reversible contraception) that need to be placed, like IUDs and implants, have to pay their GP or other practitioner $60-$500 for the placement. This is because Te Whatu Ora does not pay for the placement, only the device.[4]

This turns what should be easy, cost-effective access to highly reliable contraception into a pricey luxury.

Likewise, early medical abortions may soon be available from GPs, nurse practitioners, and midwives. But if Te Whatu Ora does not work out how to pay qualified health practitioners who provide the service fairly, some or all of the cost may need to come from patients.

According to the current funding model, GPs can charge $75 for an early medical abortion. This does not cover the full cost, because the service includes a time-consuming consultation about the procedure and options available, to satisfy the requirements for informed consent. Midwives can charge the same. But nurse practitioners have no way to access that funding, unless Te Whatu Ora changes the rules.

This means contraception and early medical abortion might be the few health services requiring patients to bear a large part of the cost – treating health care that is essential for the individuals involved and for the health system as a whole as an extravagance.

The health system treats women as cash cows in other ways, like requiring a pointless, humiliating consultation with a pharmacist to access emergency contraception. The cost of the consultation means patients can be charged $40 or more for a medicine that costs less than $10.

Te Whatu Ora needs to fund all contraception and early medical abortion fully, and compensate providers fairly, rather than using abortion providers’ dedication against them by expecting them to provide the service below cost. The public needs to demand this, but first it has to know about it.

These problems point to a fundamental fallacy. For too long, the health system has kept abortion care separate from pregnancy care, almost like they were trying to keep the “bad” ones who had abortions away from the “good” ones who had babies (pro tip: they are the same people at different times in their lives). Organisers need to inform the public and pressure Te Whatu Ora to treat contraception and abortion as an integral part of pregnancy care, to fully fund it all, and to let the funding follow the patient. A pregnancy’s outcome, whether it be a live birth or an abortion, should not matter to the health system.

Greater scrutiny of “crisis pregnancy centres”

“Crisis pregnancy centres” are ideological organisations set up to look like medical clinics, counselling providers, or charitable organisations that provide for pregnant people and new parents. Their actual purpose is to draw in unsuspecting pregnant people to pressure them not to abort, even if they want to. Many new CPCs have sprung up since law reform.

The Ministry of Health’s has had a protective effect by enabling pregnant people to organise unbiased counselling through its website or by calling 0800 DECIDE. Hopefully the only people attending CPCs in future will be those who mean to do so.

This is another area where a National government could mess with abortion provision without repealing or defunding it. The law currently only funds unbiased, accredited counsellors to provide pre- and post-abortion counselling. If biased, anti-abortion counsellors were funded, it would blur the distinction between them and actual counsellors, and put pregnant people at risk of (at best) having their time wasted, or (at worst) being pressured to do as the counsellor wants them to.

Some CPCs still receive money from the government’s COGS.[5] This happens because even though the rules say that money is not supposed to fund religious or political activities, the Ministry of Internal Affairs chooses to look the other way when local COGS grant committees, who often do not have any information about organisations applying for grants apart from their applications, unknowingly give them money.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs is responsible for setting up and administering the process around COGS grants, and local committees are responsible for distributing the money. There are opportunities here to make sure no government money goes to support CPCs, through better education of COGS committees around the rules, and through supporting committees’ due diligence efforts.

The public can and should demand a greater commitment from Internal Affairs to follow the rules, and to inform COGS committees about the groups that apply for funds. Organisers can keep track of who gets grant money, and let people know about it.

Do these issues sound trivial? Kind of peripheral? They are, in a way. They are the boring work of administering human rights that don’t inspire flights of great oratory, but are essential to ensuring that human rights are not just words on a page, they are principles that actually benefit people.

Demands for societal change

Challenging abortion stigma

Abortion stigma is the attribution of negative characteristics to people who have abortions. It is part of the right wing canon of projections intended to justify rolling back women’s rights to the 1950s, if not the 1850s.

Given the popularity of abortion on request in Aotearoa you wouldn’t think abortion stigma would be as big a problem as it demonstrably is. But patriarchy lives here too, and stigma is often part of unconsciously held belief systems that people carry without realising or recognising it.

Abortion stigma will exist as long as these things continue to exist: misogyny, sexism, and fond memories of a time when an unwanted pregnancy could ruin a woman’s life in ways it could never ruin a man’s. It is tightly coupled with patriarchy and the question of who gets to tell whom what to do.[6]

Even those who support abortion rights can sometimes act as unwitting carriers of abortion stigma by reinforcing stereotypes around “good” abortions for medical reasons and “bad” abortions that result from some perceived deviation from responsible behaviour, like the failure to use contraception or multiple abortions.

Abortion stigma is pernicious because it keeps abortion from being treated as normal health care. When health care providers feel justified in refusing to provide this care, refusing to facilitate its provision, or treating those who receive it with disdain, abortion stigma is alive and well.

It keeps people from talking about their abortions by making them feel unsafe doing so. Since one in four people with uteri have had abortions, that is a lot of people feeling unsafe.

The history of abortion-related harassment justifies their fear. This history includes violence, assault, and murder. If a person has a choice in the moment whether to acknowledge their abortion to someone whose views they do not know, why would they take the risk? When all they have to do to stay safe is keep quiet?

Silence around abortion causes harm. It allows people who don’t think about abortion very much to imagine that no one they know has ever had an abortion (almost certainly untrue). It deprives people of the opportunity to understand others and empathise with them.

While abortion law reform was happening, some brave people told their abortion stories to journalists who preserved their anonymity. This gave other people insight into the decisions pregnant people faced, and why they chose as they did. The empathy those stories created drove the ever-increasing support for abortion we saw during that time.

That empathy was a disaster for anti-abortion activists. They saw the 1950s sexual mores that form the bedrock of the moral code they seek to impose on others melt away before their eyes.

This is why anti-abortion activists are so desperate to continue to stigmatise abortion as much as they can. It is the only weapon they have left (apart from actual weapons).

So they harass people outside abortion services, pressure pregnant people who stumble into CPCs, and push their retrograde ideology and religious extremism. By talking about abortion as something outside the norm of regular health care, they hope to keep it so. Their views are grotesquely out of step with Aotearoa of 2022.

Abortion stigma needs to be eradicated. The more people realise folks who have abortions are just like them, the less inclined they will be to let any future government mess around with the reproductive rights. The more empathy increases, the less inclined people are to judge others, or to condone harassing them, praying over them, or slut-shaming them.

We need to create more safe spaces and safe people by challenging anti-abortion rhetoric, behaviour, and assumptions wherever we find them. The more privilege you have the more important it is, because privileged people have more societal licence to say their piece in safety. Challenging abortion stigma is as much the job of cis men as of everybody else.

Fighting disinformation

One of the ways anti-abortion activists frequently stigmatise abortion is disinformation. This will come as no surprise to those who were paying attention during law reform. The scaremongering was epic.

Disinformation about abortion is in some ways the ur-disinformation. Ignoring reality and disregarding facts about abortion has been standard operating procedure of anti-abortion activists since “The Silent Scream”.

Often people don’t like to talk about disinformation for fear of giving lies more oxygen, and confusing people who aren’t paying much attention. But experts have recommended a method of talking about disinformation that is not harmful.

For example, abortion does not increase a person’s chances of infertility, according to reputable medical organisations. But anti-abortion websites and handouts often say it does, as part of their ongoing efforts to pressure people not to have abortions. But abortion does not increase someone’s risk of infertility.

See what I did there? That is called a truth sandwich. The lie (“abortion causes infertility”) is sandwiched between a truth repeated twice, i.e., that abortion does not cause infertility. The power of this technique lies in not making assumptions about what the people reading or listening already know about the subject. By the end of the explanation, everyone capable of understanding is on the same page.

Dealing with disinformation one-on-one is a whole different conversation.[7] Calling out abortion stigma in all its forms is a task that will require years, thousands of people, and millions of interactions. The result will definitely be worth it.

This article was intended to address organising in support of reproductive rights. That work is sporadic and somewhat reactive. But the important work of changing our society happens every day, when we challenge the assumptions of others. This is the best work anyone can do to safeguard reproductive rights.







[7] This article has a few tips:

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