(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, February 20.)
Ever heard of Ulrich Klopfer? Probably not. Let me fill you in.
Klopfer was a doctor in the state of Indiana who died last year aged 79. Relatives clearing out his garage made a grisly discovery: 71 cardboard boxes filled with 2246 aborted foetuses.
Another 165 foetuses were found in the boot of one of Klopfer’s cars. It sounded like a scene from The Silence of the Lambs.
Klopfer was estimated to have carried out at least 50,000 legal terminations. He took pride in aborting babies with industrial efficiency and no small amount of zeal.
He would compete with a fellow abortionist, Dr Ming Kow Hah, to see who could achieve the higher tally. The two rivals in this grotesque contest would ask clinic staff how many patients the other had operated on that day. A former nurse recalled: “Klopfer would be having a cup of coffee and be on his last sip when he’d jump up and say, ‘I’d better get going or Hah will have the whole recovery room full’.”
Even the most ardent champion of abortion rights might find it difficult to excuse such chillingly casual indifference to human life. It speaks volumes that Klopfer didn’t even have enough respect for the aborted babies to give them the dignity of a proper burial.
Reading about Klopfer’s enthusiasm for his work prompts comparison with the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, who took pleasure in selecting inmates for the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Klopfer and Mengele represent different points on a continuum, but probably not so far removed from each other that they wouldn’t recognise a kindred spirit.
The macabre find in Klopfer’s garage happened months ago, but it was in the news again last week when the foetal remains were finally given a proper burial. Meanwhile, in Wellington, a parliamentary select committee delivered its report on a bill that will remove virtually all remaining obstacles to abortion in New Zealand. The multi-party committee waved the bill through with only minor changes, but with a dissenting minority report by National MP Agnes Loheni.
The bill, which will be subject to a conscience vote, has been sold politically on the basis that it’s all about women’s health, but the “health” shtick is a fiction. Pregnancy is not an illness and abortion is decidedly unhealthy for the foetus. It’s really all about ideology.
In essence, the bill will make abortion a matter between a woman and her doctor up until 20 weeks’ gestation – in other words, no impediments.
After 20 weeks, the doctor carrying out the abortion would need to be satisfied that termination was “appropriate in the circumstances, having regard to the woman’s physical and mental health and wellbeing”. It’s a vague, subjective test that will be as open to abuse as the present law.
A curious aspect of the select committee’s report is that committee members were worried at the possibility of abortions being carried out for the purpose of sex selection – that is, by people who want male babies. It seems abortion is okay in all circumstances other than those that offend feminist sensibilities.
Significantly, it seems there will be no upper time limit on the point at which an abortion could be carried out, meaning that theoretically babies could be aborted well past the point where they are capable of survival outside the womb – an issue that concerned Loheni, and which would almost certainly provoke public revulsion if it eventuated.
If passed as expected, the bill will formalise the de facto situation that already exists, under which certifying consultants routinely approve abortion requests. But it will be celebrated as a triumph for women’s rights, because the existing law’s procedural requirements have infuriated abortion activists for decades.
The bill will also satisfy their insistence that abortion be decriminalised – not that anyone can remember any woman in New Zealand being prosecuted for having one.
On the other side of the debate, liberalisation of the law will be lamented as a victory of doctrinaire feminist ideology over the right to life of the unborn child. In one of the defining ideological battles of our time, the side with the weaker political voice will be the loser.
Overlooked in all the debate is the reason that abortion was placed in the Crimes Act in the first place: because it involves extinguishing a life, which in any other context is regarded as a violation of the most fundamental human right of them all.
Disregard the right to life, and we make possible the monstrous behaviour of men such as Ulrich Klopfer. Because if we accept that a foetus is something inconvenient to be cut out and discarded like a troublesome appendix or a tumour, that's where we risk ultimately ending up. It's only a matter of degree.