(First published in The Dominion Post, March 17.)
Is there any issue more polarising than abortion?
It’s a sensitive subject because we know that tens of thousands of New Zealand women, in fact probably hundreds of thousands, have had abortions.
They will have had them for a variety of reasons – some compelling, others perhaps less so.
We know from Abortion Supervisory Committee reports that some women have had multiple abortions. Of those who had abortions in 2015, 43 had had seven or more, 74 had had six and 193 had had five, which suggests they regarded the procedure as no big deal and presumably no great cause for regret.
But a much greater number of women will have agonised over the decision, and a significant number will have suffered psychological consequences.
Decades of feminist insistence that abortion is simply a matter of women’s rights and women’s health won’t necessarily have made them feel any better about getting rid of the human life taking shape inside them.
Some will have seen the 2015 film Room, starring Brie Larson in an Oscar-winning performance as a woman who has been held captive as a sex slave for seven years.
In that time she has given birth to a boy, fathered by her captor. Mother and son live in total isolation from the outside world, imprisoned in a soundproofed garden shed.
The film’s appeal stems largely from the warmth and empathy between the woman and her smart, inquisitive son, whom she loves with a fierce passion.
It’s a daring film because it challenges the notion that the only option for a woman made pregnant through rape is to have the baby aborted.
Of course the rape victim in Room had no choice. But the film’s clear message is that even a child fathered by a monster and conceived against the mother’s will - in other words, an unwanted child - can be loved and cherished.
In this respect, the film is almost subversive, because it offers a counter-narrative to the one that dominates the abortion debate.
This is an issue so polarised that even the labels applied to the opposing camps are contentious. Abortion rights lobbyists prefer to be called pro-choice rather than pro-abortion, which is understandable.
“Pro-abortion” implies that they think sucking a foetus out of the womb and dumping it in a plastic-lined bin is a good thing, which surely can’t be the case. “Pro-choice” frames the issue much more inoffensively as an issue of women’s rights rather than babies’ deaths.
Conversely, “anti-abortion” suggests a hard, unsympathetic line and may even conjure up images of the fanatics who firebomb abortion clinics. “Pro-life” puts a friendlier, more positive spin on the anti-abortion stance.
We can expect to hear more from these groups after the Abortion Supervisory Committee, in its latest report, recommended a review of the 40-year-old legislation that sets out the circumstances in which abortions may legally be carried out. Like it or not, we’re back in the old minefield.
Abortion rights activists took the report as the cue to mount a fresh campaign for liberalisation of the law, as the committee surely must have known they would.
The activists were quick to pick up the committee’s statement that some of the language in the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion (CSA) Act is sexist and outdated, as if that somehow renders the entire legislation invalid.
Outdated language can be easily fixed, but highlighting the issue is a clever propaganda tactic because it portrays the Act as a quaint hangover from an era when men supposedly told women what to do.
In truth, the renewed debate is about much more than semantics. Complaints about sexist language are a smokescreen, because merely making the Act gender-neutral wouldn’t achieve the activists’ objective.
When they talk about “reviewing” the legislation, what they really mean is rewriting it to make abortion available on request – their goal since the 1970s.
The committee has obligingly opened the door a crack and the abortion rights lobby has jammed its foot into the gap, as the committee possibly intended.
The abortion rights lobby wants abortion decriminalised – that is to say, no longer treated as an offence under the Crimes Act, which they regard as an anachronism.
To all intents and purposes the provision relating to abortion in the Crimes Act is negated anyway by the CSA Act, which enables the Crimes Act to be legally sidestepped.
Nonetheless, the fact that abortion remains in the Crimes Act serves a symbolic purpose. It's a reminder that abortion involves extinguishing a life, no matter how hard the pro-choice lobby tries to disguise the fact.