It’s day three of the Great New Zealand Abortion Debate, Part II (resuming after a 42-year interval), and it’s becoming increasingly plain that Morning Report – or at least Susie Ferguson – has little intention of covering the issue even-handedly.
She gave us a clue to her feelings a couple of mornings ago when she made a flippant remark about women having to pretend they were mad in order to get an abortion under existing law. No prizes for guessing what she thinks, then.
This morning Ferguson took up a claim by National MP Chris Penk that Andrew Little’s abortion bill will allow abortions up to full term, which the public would almost certainly regard as intolerable. But did we hear from Penk himself? Nope, not a word.
Ferguson would have been justified in grilling Penk about the basis for his statement, but Morning Report didn’t bother with that, perhaps because it would have given him a platform. Instead, Ferguson interviewed Helen Paterson, the chair of Abortion Providers of Aotearoa New Zealand – an impeccably impartial authority. I mean, who better to provide an unbiased assessment of the proposed law change than the people who provide abortions, whose business will be made much easier (and hence more profitable) if the bill proceeds?
First Ferguson invited Paterson to agree that Penk was guilty of misinformation. Then she gently guided her through a series of soft questions which brought forth an assurance that the proposed new law was “unlikely” to change things “significantly” for women whose pregnancies had gone beyond 20 weeks.
She didn’t bother to pin Paterson down on whether the bill might create a theoretical possibility that some babies would be aborted much later than under the present law, which was surely the crux of Penk’s concern. Instead Ferguson allowed Paterson to take refuge in a semantic discussion about the meaning of the phrase “late-term abortion”.
But it got worse. Ferguson then suggested the language being used in the abortion debate (she obviously meant by the anti-abortion lobby) resembled the rhetoric heard in the United States – thus drawing a parallel with a country where people opposed to abortion are portrayed as fanatics, religious fundamentalists and oppressors of women. Not surprisingly, Paterson agreed that the language tended to be “emotive”.
Fearlessly, Ferguson continued with her relentless inquisition. “So the language being used is – what, unhelpful?” And astonishingly, Paterson agreed that it was. Offensive too, she added. Perhaps she was referring to the insistence by pro-lifers on using the word “babies” rather than the dehumanising “foetuses” favoured by the pro-choice movement.
Then the coup-de-grace. Was this emotive language a way of distracting people from the “bare bones” of the law change? (Translation: is the anti-abortion lobby trying to derail the bill by wittering on about the right to life?) “Absolutely”, Paterson said.
Talk about having your feet held to the fire. Somehow I can’t imagine Ferguson giving anyone from the anti-abortion lobby such a cruisy run. That is, in the unlikely event that they’d be invited on to Morning Report in the first place.
Disclosure: I am opposed to abortion on demand. However you don’t need to be pro-life to believe that a publicly owned broadcaster has an obligation to cover the abortion issue in a neutral and balanced way.