As the Ireland referendum vote proves, when it comes to abortion, choice is key

by Genevieve O’Halloran / 27 May, 2018

A woman reads notes left on a mural of Savita Halappanavar, who died aged 31 at an Irish hospital, from complications following a septic miscarriage. Photo / Getty Images

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Ireland has voted overwhelmingly to overturn its abortion ban. As Genevieve O'Halloran writes, there's no uniform female worldview on pregnancy and abortion - but a woman must be able to choose for herself what to do if she finds herself pregnant.

The Auckland suburb of Kingsland is a classic example of gentrification.  Close to town, its trendy cafes and scruffy villas at marginally more affordable prices than neighbouring Grey Lynn make it an irresistible target for yuppies. A century ago, Kingsland was not vastly different - a solidly established neighbourhood of knockabout cottages running down to the gully now bisected by the north-western motorway.

On 14 June 1911, Kingsland hit the news. Elsie Holland was found dead in the front bedroom of the First Avenue home of James and Martha O'Shaughnessy. Elsie’s lips were burnt from mercury perchloride, but she had not swallowed it; it transpired that the poison had been placed on Elsie’s lips in an attempt to suggest suicide. The post-mortem examination confirmed that Elsie’s lonely death was not from poisoning, but from septicaemia caused by a “certain operation”. The trials – there were three, two ending in hung juries – riveted the country. Mrs O'Shaughnessy was finally convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to seven years’ hard labour. Mr. O'Shaughnessy was found not guilty.


I thought of poor Elsie and the dastardly, doomed Mrs O as voting on the referendum to repeal the 8th amendment to the Constitution of Ireland started on Friday.  The Republic of Ireland has, to date, had some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, with abortion illegal in almost all circumstances. The 8th amendment to the Irish Constitution gave the foetus the status of citizen, even in early pregnancy, essentially preventing the Irish Parliament from legislating to liberalise abortion laws.

Momentum to change the law gathered in 2012 with the death of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar, who died of sepsis after being denied an abortion following a miscarriage at 17 weeks pregnant.

On Friday, Twitter was ablaze with a reverse Diaspora, as Irish citizens making the journey back told their stories under the hashtag #HomeToVote. (Voting from overseas was not allowed.) “We travel so other women don’t have to,” said one, alluding to “travelling” – the Irish euphemism for journeying abroad for a termination. “#HomeToVote better be the last time the 8th Amendment causes anyone to travel”, said another.

It was a landslide for the campaign, with 66.4% in favour of repealing the 8th amendment, allowing Parliament to legislate for abortion up to 12 weeks’ gestation.

The referendum result in Ireland is a victory for the pro-choice movement, but in the United States things are moving in the other direction. This month, Iowa passed a new law banning abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which is usually at about 6 weeks – before many women even realise they are pregnant.   And just last week, President Trump tweeted “For the first time since Roe v. Wade, America has a Pro-Life President, a Pro-Life Vice President, a Pro-Life House of Representatives and 25 Pro-Life Republican State Capitals!”  (To be fair, Trump is no moral absolutist. In 1999, he told NBC” I’m very pro-choice … I just believe in choice … I am strongly for choice.”)

In New Zealand access to abortion is governed by the Crimes Act 1961, and the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977. Essentially, these two pieces of legislation mean that terminating a pregnancy in New Zealand is illegal, unless one of the grounds for a termination applies (that the pregnancy is a risk to the physical or mental health of the mother; that there is a substantial risk the child will be seriously handicapped; that the pregnancy is a result of incest; or that the woman is deemed to be "severely subnormal"), and a certificate to that effect is authorised by two certifying consultants. In the event that certification is obtained, pregnancies may be terminated up to 20 weeks. After 20 weeks, abortions may be obtained in certain limited circumstances (for example, to save the life of the mother). 

Prevailing wisdom (until recently) has been that while our existing abortion law is not particularly sound in principle, in practice abortion is mostly safely available. If it ain’t (that) broke, don’t fix it.

However, the Pandora’s box started creaking open in the pre-election debate in late 2017. When asked whether abortion law in New Zealand needed reforming, Jacinda Ardern responded, “It shouldn’t be in the Crimes Act,” (which doesn’t quite answer the question). She continued, “I want women who want access to have it as a right.” Opposition leader Simon Bridges has said that abortion should be “rare, safe and legal, and I think the emphasis there is on rare”, a statement he repeated several times when questioned by media on Monday morning. "Overall", he said, "the regime we have is working well." Rare, safe and legal is a position that's difficult to disagree with, depending on how “rare” is achieved. (It’s worth noting though, that in 2011, Bridges supported the appointment of a doctor strongly opposed to abortion to the Abortion Supervisory Committee.) Prevention of unwanted pregnancies, through sex education and broad access to effective contraception, coupled with adequate support for women wishing to continue their pregnancies, would all contribute to achieving the desired rarity.  However, it seems curious to prioritise "rare" over "safe" and "legal". In New Zealand, abortion may not be rare, but its numbers are dropping. In 2016, 12,823 abortions were performed in New Zealand, 332 (3 percent) fewer than in 2015, and a substantial drop from a high in 2003 of 18,511. Where women are able to access it, it is overwhelmingly safe. But under our current regime, the default position is that abortion is not legal - it is a crime. 

In February, Minister of Justice Andrew Little wrote to the Law Commission, requesting advice on how to “best ensure New Zealand’s abortion laws are consistent with treating abortion as a health issue” [rather than a justice one].  The Law Commission invited submissions on the issue, which closed a week ago.  

While the influence of the Catholic Church’s doctrine on abortion law is clearly on the wane in Ireland, in New Zealand the Church continues to oppose any liberalisation of our abortion laws. In a seven-page submission to the Law Commission, the Church re-stated its position that human life starts at conception, opposing the establishment of a ‘right’ to abortion.

“Mothers”, the submission, written by Bishop Pat Dunn and Dr John Kleinsman, stated “instinctively recognise this by invariably referring to the embryo or foetus within the womb as their baby.”

“Most women”, the two male authors continued, “understand that an abortion, whatever the reason they are contemplating it, has significant moral implications.”

Using language which disguises the complexity and moral dimensions of abortion, the submission asserted, with benign paternalism, “is ultimately not in the interests of women.”

Following the closure of public submissions, the Law Commission is now preparing its report and will provide its briefing to the Minister of Justice in October 2018. Andrew Little has said that any new legislation will be a conscience vote.

My own pregnancy is drawing towards a close. At 8 months pregnant, time seems to be moving slowly – almost as slowly as I am, as I lumber towards the arrival of my daughter in late June.

It may seem counter-intuitive, even jarring, for a heavily pregnant woman to advocate for abortion rights. But if there is one thing that I have learned through this process, it is that no woman should be forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy.

My daughter, and my son before her, are both long-planned and much-wanted children. They have affluent, well-educated parents, a warm dry home, and all the books and beach holidays and Little Kickers classes an entitled middle-class child could possibly wish for.

But even a much-wanted pregnancy is hard. The physical impact of childbearing can be acute. The emotional and financial cost of parenthood is draining, even when offset by the great joy and fierce love that children bring.

How can it be right to force a woman to endure a pregnancy that she does not want, and to give birth to a child that is not welcome? In some cases, the pregnancy will be as a result of abuse or crime, but not always. Unpalatable as it may be, allowing abortion only for reasons deemed morally acceptable is problematic.

Even deeply conservative jurisdictions often make allowances in case of rape or incest, and even for the most progressive among us, the idea of abortion being used as a form of contraception is distasteful. But pills fail, condoms break. An IUD costs $340. And sometimes human nature is imperfect and people throw caution to the wind – should we allow the victims of crime and coercion to end their pregnancies while forcing the hot-blooded and irresponsible to give birth to unwanted children?  Who are we really punishing here? 

I don’t know what decision I would make for myself, and I have been lucky enough that it’s a choice I’ve never had to grapple with. But that’s the key – choice.  For some women I know, the decision to terminate has been a great grief; for others, a blessed relief.  There are as many different factors as there are women. And contrary to what the Catholic Church may think, there is no uniform female worldview when it comes to pregnancy, abortion and parenthood.

Drawing equivalence between a living, breathing human being, with hopes and fears and responsibilities, with an embryonic cluster of cells with great potential seems to me to be a logical stretch. If you were fleeing a burning fertility lab, would you struggle with choosing to save a flesh-and-blood toddler over a freezer full of petri dishes?

Our legislative framework is not perfect but I am grateful that living in New Zealand means my right to freedom of speech and the Catholic Church’s right to freedom of religion are both protected.  And I pray to a non-denominational God that my daughter grows up in a world where every woman’s right to freedom of choice receives similar protection. Where women are not made criminals or liars for exercising autonomy over their own bodies; where abortion is a health issue between a woman and her doctor. Where there are no more Elsies.


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