The Spectre of the Bloody Fetus Placard

Is New Zealand's party of alleged personal agency and responsibility in danger of being overrun by religious zealots who want to control our most intimate choices?

One thing I've appreciated about New Zealand since arriving in 2000 is that the abortion debate here is muted and mostly civil. There's one landowner on a highway southeast of Auckland who displays a billboard with a message along the lines of "choose life"; it is notable in its singularity and inoffensiveness. I understand a small group of subdued protesters also turn up religiously every week outside an Auckland hospital that provides abortions.

Most Kiwis are of a live-and-let-live mindset on abortion. How many are aware that our abortion law falls under the Crimes Act of 1961? It stipulates that women seeking an abortion obtain a medical certificate signed by two doctors; they can only approve the procedure on narrow grounds which do not include contraceptive failure, inability to financially support a child, or rape. For a medical procedure this is an unusually daunting hurdle, one which is obviously more difficult for poorer women, rural women, women for whom English is a second language, etc. In practice it means hundreds of babies are born every year to women who didn't wish to become mothers. (About 200 requests for abortions are refused every year.)

Yet in the political realm, the two main parties have largely given the issue a miss for decades, with the law last amended in 1977. Inanely popular immediate former Prime Minister John Key is best described as agnostically and inconsistently libertarian on issues with a moral dimension. He opposed decriminalising prostitution and cannabis use but favoured marriage equality and abortion law reform without any passionate advocacy for any of these stances. He handed his position to a man who claims to keep his religious views separate from his politics, yet coincidentally is in favour of none of the above, and he frowns on euthanasia too.

When this new Prime Minister, devout Catholic father-of-six Bill English callously declared that no review of the abortion laws would happen under his watch, it sounded a warning bell for me. Granted, having grown up in a place where doctors literally die over this issue, I am perhaps overly sensitive to those particular chimes. Avoiding what could be a contentious and messy debate is par for the course for too many Kiwi politicians; still, vigilance is called for when a man like this ascends to the leadership of the largest party, one which claims to champion personal agency and responsibility.

Tonight at a candidate forum at the St Ignatius Church in St Heliers, two-term Tāmaki MP Simon O'Connor of National proudly declared his "pro life" agenda: anti-abortion, anti-euthanasia. Across town in a red electorate, National selected a like-minded zealot to stand in New Lynn. How many more National MPs and 2017 candidates come from this mould? With English at the helm, what is their agenda should they reach some sort of critical mass?

I challenged O'Connor with the absurdity of the fact that a woman like me, a woman in her 40s who has raised children and doesn't want any more, can be raped and impregnated and then suffer the indignity of convincing two doctors her mental health would be impaired in order not to have to continue the pregnancy.

He accused me of raising an "extreme" example.

Only a zealot could be so tone deaf to the reality of the lives of half of his constituents.

The last thing New Zealand needs is floods of protesters shaming women seeking health care, blocking access to hospitals and clinics, and brandishing posters of bloody fetal parts to traumatise any young innocent children who happen to pass by.

Think it could never happen here? Still think our land and water is clean and green? Still think we're an egalitarian socialist paradise where everyone can realise the Kiwi dream if they only work hard and eschew soft green fruit?

In the United States, Republican politicians who probably don't even care about abortion cynically manipulate one-issue voters for support by banging this particular drum, whose echoes prevail in the pulpits of evangelical churches, on conservative talk-back radio and even in how abortion and abortion-seekers are depicted on television. I worry very much for New Zealand if National strategists ever conclude that this approach could be worthwhile here. The fact that only Pentecostal and evangelical faiths are growing in adherents, while milder Christian religions continue a downward slide does nothing to assuage my concern.


An American expat living in Auckland since 2000, Julia Schiller is a graduate of Washington University in St Louis, a former ESOL teacher, a Labour Party volunteer, and a self-employed entrepreneur.