The online news and comment site The Spinoff published an opinion piece a few days ago by Terry Bellamak, the president of Abortion Rights Aotearoa, entitled Why we need safe areas outside abortion clinics.
It was written in support of a Bill that would create 150-metre “safe zones” (that word “safe” again, implying that people’s physical wellbeing might be at risk when the only life imperilled is that of an unborn child) around premises where abortions are provided.
The introductory blurb above Bellamak’s piece said these zones would ensure pregnant women wanting abortions don’t have to be confronted by “angry mobs” (really??) outside clinics.
The Bill, introduced by Labour MP Louisa Wall – no doubt with the approval, if not the active encouragement, of prime minister Jacinda Ardern and health minister Andrew Little – would make it illegal to “intimidate or obstruct” women attending abortion clinics. It would also outlaw attempts to communicate with patients “in a manner … likely to cause emotional distress”.
The Bill is a mopping-up exercise aimed at taking care of business that was left unfinished when Parliament abolished restrictions on abortion last year. Abortion activists wanted "safe zones" included in that legislation, but were thwarted by what Bellamak calls a “procedural misstep”.
On a conscience vote, Wall’s Bill passed its first reading on Wednesday night by a margin of 100 to 15, with two abstentions. But that’s not necessarily an indication of its level of support, because some MPs probably want the Bill to proceed to a select committee so they can then propose changes.
ACT, whose nine MPs voted for the Bill on its first reading, is said to oppose (as it should) the provision barring attempts to communicate with abortion patients, on the grounds that it’s an infringement of free speech rights. Rather embarrassingly, Attorney-General David Parker has found himself forced to agree. In the report that he was required to provide on the implications of the Bill, Parker said it appeared inconsistent with the right to freedom of expression guaranteed in Section 14 of the Bill of Rights Act. But don’t expect that minor technicality to impede its progress.
Now, back to The Spinoff. The hysterical reference in the introductory blurb to “angry mobs” was a clue to the tone of Bellamak’s piece, in which she talks of abortion patients fearing “escalation to violence”.
But if you take the trouble to follow the links that supposedly substantiate Bellamak’s fears of incipient violence from anti-abortion fanatics, they all refer to situations that have occurred in America – in other words, utterly irrelevant to the New Zealand experience.
If there was evidence that women attending New Zealand abortion clinics had been threatened or menaced, you’d expect Bellamak to cite them. The fact that she has to refer to American examples is telling. The one New Zealand instance of violence relating to abortion that she cites was the act of a plainly disturbed man who assaulted Greens co-leader James Shaw – an offence unrelated to vigils outside clinics.
Bellamak, of course, is herself American, and has introduced a strident American element to the abortion debate in New Zealand. This is probably not helpful, since the issue is strained enough without the introduction of American-style extremism and hyperbole.
Unfortunately, being passive people, New Zealanders tend to let the loud and assertive take over, which is what appears to have happened to Abortion Rights Aoteroa. But as long as we’re stuck with Bellamak, surely the least she could do is deal with the situation as it applies here, not in Colorado or Arizona.
So what’s the reality in New Zealand? As it happens, I have a sister and niece who regularly maintain a vigil outside a provincial abortion clinic. As my sister describes it to me, their presence is essentially passive. “Generally we say ‘hello’ to passers-by but get into further conversation only if they respond,” she tells me. “We follow their lead.”
If the girl or woman is receptive, she says, they offer information on alternatives to abortion, such as adoption, and practical or emotional support through the pregnancy. They also pray and display posters (of the most inoffensive kind, in my sister’s words, although of course others may decide they’re “unsafe”). But most women attending the clinic are in cars anyway, so the protesters’ presence (although my sister doesn’t think of herself as a protester) is purely visual.
“Any ‘harassing’ or bullying’,” she adds. “is done not by us, but to us, by people passing in cars, on foot, on bikes.”
No one attending the clinic is obstructed, confronted or shouted at, then? “Never, never, never.”
So the Bill before Parliament, quite apart from the issues it raises in relation to free speech, may be based on a wildly distorted and exaggerated version of what actually happens “on the ground”.
Though I’m strongly opposed to abortion, as readers of this blog will know, I’ve never stood outside a clinic and probably wouldn’t. But I respect those who do, and I understand why they put themselves “out there” (literally). One reason is that many women and girls referred for abortion have been given the impression there’s no alternative. No one has offered them support if they want to continue the pregnancy. The protesters (I’m sorry, but I can’t think of another word) are letting them know they have options that “the system” doesn’t tell them about.
As an aside, it’s funny how the Left, which has always vigorously asserted the right to protest – sometimes violently, and often without regard for the rights of others, such as freedom of movement – wants to deny that right to others now that it’s in a position of power. Same old same old, as they say.
But don’t expect The Spinoff to acknowledge there are two sides to this story. The last time Bernard Moran, former president of Voice for Life, wrote to The Spinoff rebutting something Bellamak had written, Spinoff editor Toby Manhire replied that he preferred to believe Bellamak.
There’s an open mind for you, fearlessly committed to the pursuit of truth and the contest of ideas.
I can probably do no better here than quote from an email Moran sent to Manhire last Tuesday.
“I see Terry Bellamak is at it again unchallenged in yesterday’s Spinoff,” Moran wrote.
“Again I make the point: if our people behaved as she alleges, they would be creating a public nuisance and disorder.
“That would justify the clinics calling the police. It doesn’t happen.
“What she wrote is a series of fantasies. She presumably gets away with it because people at The Spinoff appear to believe that’s the way 'anti-abortionists' would behave.”
And this, from Moran’s previous letter to Manhire on March 6, 2019:
“You have run another oped by ALRANZ’s Terry Bellamak today and she makes serious and very damaging allegations without mentioning Voice for Life.
“But your outraged readers will naturally think our members are responsible.
“She says pro-lifers stand outside clinics and shout ‘whore!’, ‘murderer!’ and throw plastic foetuses at the women entering.
“We have had to put up with this damaging smear tactic for decades and like the Himalayan Yeti, we never ever get credible evidence of who is doing it, when and where.
“I’ll give you an example. Back in 2014, the Abortion Supervisory Committee, without checking with us, went public with similar accusations which were reported in the media.
“As the national president of Voice for Life, I immediately phoned the secretary and asked for evidence, which was refused.
“I then wrote to the committee saying that we took this very seriously and would expel any member who behaved as alleged – and asked for any evidence. They refused to provide any.
“Faced with this Kafka-like obduracy, Right to Life and Voice for Life requested the Ombudsman to investigate.
“The Ombudsman reported back that the committee couldn’t provide them with any evidence apart, from vague ‘verbal complaints’ from abortion clinic staff.
“I carried out an audit of our branches in 2014 and questioned those involved in prayer vigils outside clinics. They were adamant that such allegations were baseless.
“OK, so I carried out another survey in November, 2018. This was just after four Wellington High School students lodged a petition with Parliament calling for ‘exclusion zones’ to prevent anti-abortion protesters ‘harassing’ women seeking legal abortions.
“I discovered that Pro-Life Action operates in Wellington and they have one member, MH, who also is in Voice for Life. [Full name deleted by me – KduF.]
“Christchurch – nothing going on.
“Dunedin used to have a Friday prayer vigil with a few pensioners.
“Invercargill: ‘We have a group of 8-10 people who meet each week near our hospital for one hour on a street corner. We have a banner and simple pro-life placards. We do not harass anyone.’
“That report is from Norman Maclean, a former head of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Southland Hospital.
“Thames has a small group of pensioners who meet on a street corner every Friday morning when abortions are performed. They pray and in their seven years there, three babies have been saved when their mothers stopped to talk and changed their minds.
“Hastings has a group of two young women and one guy who meet outside the hospital. So far 33 babies have been confirmed saved (their mothers sent photos or brought them along as toddlers).
“Now if pro-lifers were behaving in the way Terry Bellamak claims in The Spinoff, that would be real harassment (public disorder) and the clinic staff would be justified in calling the police. We are not aware of that happening.
“Once again we are playing catch up to baseless allegations. Bellamak is never challenged to provide chapter-and-verse evidence.”
Moran has now followed up with a stronger letter to Duncan Greive, founder and managing editor of The Spinoff, in which he wrote:
“I was the national president of Voice for Life from 2011 to 2017, so I had a ring-side seat to judge the veracity of Terry Bellamak’s allegations.
“She wrote about mobs of protesters shouting abuse and throwing plastic foetuses at vulnerable women – surely assault and a police matter.
“Well, as true as me writing that Duncan Greive and Toby Manhire wear MAGA caps at home, secretly attend Brian Tamaki’s Destiny Church, beat their wives and are cruel to animals.”
Moran continued: “I’ve had many years experiencing Terry Bellamak’s tactics.
“She’s a very smart operator, ran her own technology company in New York contracting to Goldman Sachs and now a lawyer in Wellington.
“Terry appears to be from the ‘whatever it takes’ school and she plays to win.
“She obviously recognises that the editorial staff at The Spinoff are sympatico with her cause and ready to assist.
“That’s why as a real New Yorker she sold you the Brooklyn Bridge of tales about anti-abortion protesters, knowing you would buy it without checking or questioning.
“In March 2019, she did the same thing and I responded to Toby Manhire with a two-page rebuttal. He replied dismissively that he preferred to believe Terry Bellamak.
“I re-sent the rebuttal to him last Tuesday as a reminder. You can ask him for it.
“It’s galling for us to be subjected to such awful falsehoods, knowing that you two guys accepted them at face value – that you both wanted to believe them. Otherwise you would have done some basic checking with us and the police.
“I’m sorry to have to say this, but the historical example for what you have perpetrated on us are the editorial and journalistic values of Der Stürmer*.”
I leave it to readers of this blog to decide who’s the more credible.
*Der Stürmer: a rabble-rousing pro-Nazi paper in Hitler’s Germany.
Footnote: I have corrected a reference to Norman Maclean. The original version of this post said he had been head of O and G at Southland Hospital for 40 years. He was with the department for 40 years, but in charge for 10.