Gordon Campbell on the conflicts over abortion

Tomorrow morning, the Abortion Supervisory Committee (ASC) will appear at Parliament to make the case that an abortion law passed 40 years ago may now need to be reviewed and modernised, in the light of 21st century attitudes and practices. You’d think that this would be a no-brainer. Yet the same kind of social regressives who framed and passed the original 1977 abortion legislation – and they now include the current Prime Minister – are saying there’s no problem, move on.

Lets make it really simple for the MPs. The process of review and change could easily proceed in two separate stages. Step one: abortion could and should be de-criminalised via a simple parliamentary process whereby abortion is taken out of the Crimes Act, and put where it belongs – into the Health Act, as a medical procedure between women and their medical practitioners, at the very least. Arguably, given the availability of chemical options in the 21st century, it can and should be regarded as a choice for women alone. Either way, this is a medical procedure, not a crime.

Meaning: de-criminalisation can readily be achieved while Parliament revisits the grounds for obtaining an abortion, which is currently managed via a process involving two certifying consultants. The certification part of the picture is also in need of review, and updating. (eg abortion is not available on an equal basis, in all regions of New Zealand. The extent of such failures in equity re abortion services would be one of the purposes of having a comprehensive parliamentary review.)

But back to the de-criminalisation process for a moment. In Britain this week, the process of de-criminalising abortion was successfully put on the rails:

MPs have won the right to introduce a bill to Parliament which would decriminalise abortion for the first time by repealing a law that dates back to Victorian times. A ten-minute rule bill introduced by Diana Johnson, the Labour MP for Hull North, sought permission of the House to change two sections of a law passed in 1861, before women had the vote. It succeeded by 170 votes to 142, a margin of 32.

Johnson argued that the law was unfair and inappropriate in an age when women can and will access abortion pills by post because they want to be able to terminate their pregnancy in the privacy of their own home. As the law stands, doing so is technically punishable by life imprisonment under sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act – both for the woman and for anyone, including a doctor, who helps her.

Something similar could readily be done here, if the political will to do so existed. Earlier this year, the Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRANZ) released poll results that showed just how much Parliament is lagging behind public opinion on abortion. Those poll results have been usefully collated by the NZ Herald in this fashion:

Respondents were asked if they supported abortion being legal in a number of situations. The results were:

• Pregnant woman is likely to die without an abortion
Legal: 77 per cent
Illegal: 5 per cent
Unsure/refused: 18 per cent

• Pregnant woman’s health is likely to be permanently harmed without an abortion
Legal: 76 per cent
Illegal: 6 per cent
Unsure/refused: 18 per cent

• Fetus has no chance of survival
Legal: 76 per cent
Illegal: 6 per cent
Unsure/refuse: 18 per cent

• Pregnancy is the result of rape
Legal: 73 per cent
Illegal: 8 per cent
Unsure/refused: 18 per cent

• Pregnancy is a result of birth control failure
Legal: 55 per cent
Illegal: 24 per cent
Unsure/refused: 21 per cent

• Pregnant woman can’t afford to have another child
Legal: 54 per cent
Illegal: 27 per cent
Unsure/refused: 20 per cent

There are no grounds for complacency. What the age of Trump has shown is that women cannot continue to rely on past nod-and-wink tolerance as a reliable safeguard, in future. Only a few years ago, a court challenge mounted by the Right To Life movement in 2012 to the current abortion certification process failed in the Supreme Court by only the narrowest of margins, in a 3-2 split decision.

As many observers have pointed out, the 1977 legislation is a conservative law on the books that has been interpreted liberally in practice. It may not always be interpreted liberally in future. Currently for instance, the law does not allow the validity of the decisions made by certifying consultants to be challenged in court. This safeguard rests however on a single precedent set in 1982 – Wall v Livingston. Two of the justices who upheld Wall v Livingston in the 2012 proceedings – Tipping and Blanchard – have since retired. As Alison McCulloch wrote in her Werewolf article in 2012:

Right to Life’s action took aim at a fault line running through the abortion regime in New Zealand, and until the underlying tension between a liberal abortion practice and a conservative abortion law is resolved, there will be more cases, more challenges, more threats to abortion access and New Zealand will fall farther behind than it already has in providing timely abortion care. A 2010 study showed that compared to other developed countries, abortions are accessed much later in New Zealand, increasing the risk of complications. And though the study didn’t take aim at the law, the cumbersome approval procedures it demands are clearly the major factor in delaying access to abortion.

Chemical abortion, self administered, is one way forward through the current impasse. McCulloch’s 2012 survey of the chemical abortion situation is available here.

Last year, the eighth report by New Zealand to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Towards Women (CEDAW) noted that:

137. Abortion rates recently hit a 17 year low (down to 14.4 per 1000 women aged 15–44 years). A recent High Court ruling regarding the legal grounds for early medical abortions may pave the way for greater availability of this less invasive procedure.

So let’s take stock: a cumbersome law that delivers abortion services inequitably throughout New Zealand. A conservative law that criminalises abortion, and relies on subterfuge to operate in the liberal fashion that the public expects, and demands. Abortion procedures being partially abetted and superseded by chemical agents, self administered, by those able to access and afford the pills involved. And a Women’s Minister and deputy PM busily chirping that she’s ‘pro-choice’ to liberal voters in Auckland while otherwise sitting on her hands. Yep, nothing to see here, move on.

Footnote: Since the PM and the deputy PM are in conflict over abortion, should this be taken as one of those conflicts that if we were talking about Labour and the Greens would be seen as a sign of innate instability?

Student loan repayments

MPs have more pressing problems, it seems. Why, Bill English claimed at his post Cabinet press conference on Monday that the existence of a Budget surplus is harder to manage than a deficit, because a surplus requires decisions between choices! Pity the poor fellow. One of those options has to do with student debt – especially since the repayment burden appears likely to continue without significant relief, even though the age for retirement is being pushed out further.

At Monday’s press conference, Fairfax’s Vernon Small asked English whether the income threshold for starting to repay student loans has been set too low.

Later, Werewolf invited English to comment on why that income threshold for student loan repayment was set at $NZ19,084 in this country, and more like $A50,000 across the Tasman. Why, I asked, does such a striking difference in the repayment expectations exist between the two countries?

English : Well, I’m not an expert on their system but I think you’ll find there are other aspects of the student loan system that are significantly less generous over there than they are here. So we make our own policy about it… in New Zealand, there’s a high premium placed on paying no interest…

Werewolf : Are you saying this doesn’t support an argument that New Zealand is harder on student repayments?

English : You’d have to look at the detail of who pays what for what. We haven’t viewed the Australian scheme as a benchmark, put it that way.


Assange, Farage, Putin, Trump

The recent visit paid to Julian Assange by UKIP’s Nigel Farage has underlined the close links that now exist between the Wikileaks founder and the Trump/Putin axis. That coziness has been evident for quite a while:

Is it just a coincidence that WikiLeaks dumped a massive database pertaining to CIA hacking and wiretapping just three days after Trump made wiretapping [allegedly of him by the Obama administration] a major political issue? Perhaps so. But there is cause for suspicion… WikiLeaks has often timed its leaks for maximum political impact. It released 20,000 stolen DNC emails just three days before the Democratic National Convention on July 25, 2016. As expected, WikiLeaks generated headlines about DNC staffers disparaging Sen. Bernie Sanders, buttressing a Trump campaign effort to prevent Clinton from consolidating Sanders supporters.

Incredibly, Trump seems to regard Wikileaks as a more credible source than his own country’s intelligence agencies. Here’s why:

WikiLeaks’ history of being used by Russian intelligence to support Trump should lead to much greater scrutiny [of] why it was released now. Even if there is no active collusion between the White House and the Kremlin, the extent to which their agendas coincide is striking. Both Putin and Trump want to discredit the U.S. intelligence community because they see it as an obstacle to their power.

Assange may have a new best friend in the White House, but he has other pressing problems. On April 2, Ecuador faces a run-off election to choose a new leader and – judging by the polls – this may well see a conservative candidate elected [Guillermo Lasso] who has said he’ d evict Assange from Ecuador’s embassy in London. Lasso’s initial hardline on this point has softened a little in recent weeks

Lasso was behind [left wing candidate] Lenin Moreno by several points when he made his initial comments about evicting Assange from the embassy… Since then, he has taken the lead… In the days after that poll was taken, Lasso also qualified his stance on Assange. “We will ask Mr. Assange, very politely, to leave our embassy, in absolute compliance with international conventions and protocols,” he told the Miami Herald by email earlier this month. But, he said, “we vow to take all steps necessary so that another embassy will take him in and protect his rights.”

Lasso also noted that Assange said he would agree to US extradition if President Barack Obama gave Chelsea Manning — the former US soldier who leaked hundreds of thousands of cables to WikiLeaks in 2010 and was subsequently sentenced to 35 years in a US prison — clemency. Prior to leaving office, Obama commuted Manning’s sentence, granting her release on May 17. Assange has said that commutation is not a pardon and remains in the Embassy…

So Assange may soon need to find a hideout somewhere else in London – assuming that Lasso is serious about trying to find Assange an alternative refuge and assuming that Ecuador can also (somehow) organise a safe transfer. Otherwise, Assange will be dispatched to Sweden to face his sexual assault charges. After which though, his new best friend in the White House may well choose not to press for Assange’s extradition.

Goodbye Judge

Here’s another way of dealing with your legal problems. This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first episodes of the very great Buffy The Vampire Slayer TV series. In this mall scene from season two, Buffy memorably disposes of The Judge, a villain re-assembled by Spike and Drusilla as a “present” for Buffy on her 17th birthday.

This mall incident provides a useful comic moment, amid the ongoing tragic consequences of Buffy and Angel having had sex in the previous episode, “Surprise”. Ultimately, the season two finale resolves the Angel/Angelus problem in an even more extreme fashion.

Footnote : Recently, I resigned as Scoop Editor – with one month’s notice that ended on March 10 – and will be concentrating on providing political coverage during this election year. An announcement on a replacement will be forthcoming shortly from Scoop.