Gordon Campbell on abortion law reform, and the US Electoral College nightmare

abortion-imageAbortion is such a polarising issue that politicians commonly avoid it like the plague. Co-incidentally though, New Zealand and New South Wales are both trying to reform their abortion laws right now, at exactly the same time – and in our case, that reform is happening for the first time in 42 years. This week at Parliament, a special select committee began taking public submissions on the legislation being proposed.

Briefly, the New Zealand government aims to take abortion out of the Crimes Act and remove the current legal barriers to abortion access up to the 20 weeks gestation point, after which one doctor can authorise a termination, in the light of the medical, physical, and socio-psychological circumstances. Overall, this draft package is similar to the NSW changes which would also formally decriminalise abortion, making it the last Australian state or territory to do so. (Victoria de-criminalised abortion 11 years ago.)

Unlike the New Zealand proposal, NSW aims to set the gestational cut-off point at 22 weeks, with two doctors being needed to authorise a termination beyond that point. In fact, wide variations exist across Australia as to the gestational cut-off point beyond which those more stringent authorisation conditions kick in:

The Australian Capital Territory has no cut off. Others are set at 14 weeks (the Northern Territory), 16 weeks (Tasmania), 22 weeks (Queensland and the bill currently under debate in New South Wales) and 24 weeks (Victoria).

Several Australian states and territories have also made it illegal to protest against abortion within a stipulated distance of an abortion facility – under the various state laws, there is an automatic 150 metre ‘safe zone’ in NSW, Queensland, Tasmania and Victoria. New Zealand, like the Australian Capital Territory, has chosen instead to tackle this problem in a reactive way, by enabling a safe zone to be created by ministerial discretion and regulation only after women have already experienced harassment.

These comparisons are relevant, because they demonstrate how relatively conservative the New Zealand reforms really are, and that’s even before any amendments emerge from the public submissions and select committee deliberations. Interestingly…in this week’s submissions to Parliament and in NSW as well, the opposition to the reforms from the anti-choice movement has chosen to focus its submissions on the issue of late term abortions.

This is despite the fact that as proposed, statutory conditions will apply to late term abortions which – in any case – comprise only a very, very small fraction of the terminations that take place here. Statistics NZ for instance, estimates that 99.6 % of all abortions in this country occur during the initial 20 week period of gestation. In New Zealand in 2018, there were only 56 late term abortions (ie after 20 weeks) out of a total of 13,282 abortions.

In Australia, the figure for late term abortions is slightly higher and reasons exist for why they occur at all:

Around 13% of abortions in Australia occur after 20 weeks. About half are performed because of foetal abnormality. The other half are for a number of reasons: women who don’t menstruate regularly (because they are young, perimenopausal or on contraceptives, for example) [and therefore] miss early symptoms of pregnancy; abusive partners prevent women from accessing abortion services at an earlier date; relationships break down; socioeconomic circumstances change.

And besides:

There’s no evidence gestational limits result in fewer second and third trimester abortions. But there is evidence that such cut-offs harm women, especially those who are already disadvantaged.

Perhaps for that reason, Canada has no gestational cut off point at all. Evidently, abortion can be treated as merely one health service available to women, among all the others.

From here onwards

The conditions being thrown up by the NSW debate on their reform process have included attempts to expressly rule out the gender selection of the child as a reason for abortion, to place a cap on when abortions of any sort can take place and finally – from some religious objectors – there have been submissions to legalise abortion beyond 22 weeks only if the life of the mother can be proved to be at stake, or only if a serious fetal abnormality can be proven present.

On both sides of the Tasman, public opinion is heavily in favour of removing the criminal stigma from abortion:

The most recent study of public opinion towards abortion in Australia found 73% of respondents believed abortion should be fully decriminalised and 57.9% agreed that “women should be able to obtain an abortion readily when they want one”.

That approval figure has been increasing. The Australian Electoral Study showed a moderate increase in support for the idea that abortion should be “obtained readily” – and support for that proposition reportedly went up from 53 per cent at the start of the 1990s, to 69 per cent in 2016. (Conversely, only 5.6% of Australians have declared themselves to be unequivocally opposed to abortion.) In New Zealand, it is much the same story: polling earlier this year by Newshub/Reid Research showed that 69.9% of New Zealanders are in favour of the de-criminalisation of abortion.

Who Seeks Abortions?

Only a few days ago in the Sydney Morning Herald Paddy Moore, (described by the newspaper as Australia’s leading gynaecologist) gave a sober overview of who seeks abortions, and why:

“All forms of contraception fail,” she says, matter-of-factly. “People don’t realise that. But when you’re a family planner, I’ve seen every form of contraception fail. There is no perfect form of contraception yet.” The Melbourne Royal Women’s Hospital specialist is also well aware of the “typical narrative” that the women who get abortions must be lazy, young or irresponsible. But this is not her experience, having cared for thousands of people who sought to end a pregnancy.

Along with those whose contraception did not work, Moore’s patients include people who have had a fetal abnormality – sometimes diagnosed late in the pregnancy. They also include victims of family violence and sexual assault or people with a medical condition, such a cancer, that makes it dangerous to carry a baby. “They come from all walks of life. They’re very rarely ‘irresponsible’. Most of the time, the vast majority are making really difficult decisions for the preservation of the family that they do have, for the children they do have to look after, for the future they want for themselves and their families.”

Moreover, Moore told the SMH, another common misunderstanding about abortions is the view that if it is accessible, it will become a “popular option”. She disagrees:

As someone who is immersed in this area, it is not a popular option for women. No one approaches this as their modus operandi – their method of fertility control – lightly.”

Over time, Moore explained, her personal attitude to abortion has evolved:

“Initially, my response was, ‘this is a job that has to be done and I will do it’,” she says. “It’s actually something that I was prepared to do more of as I got older because I’d heard more and more stories from women and their families. I’d looked after more and more women facing that really difficult decision about a fetal abnormality in a much-wanted pregnancy. So I’d realised, ‘who was there to provide it for them?'”

With the passage of time, she has also found it easier to talk about:

“When I was younger it was a difficult thing for me to talk about it in a mixed group, because you never knew what people were going to think of you. Now I feel at peace with all of that, that I’m doing the right thing for women and by women, and so it’s not difficult to talk about at all.”

At its first reading the draft legislation in New Zealand passed by 94 votes to 23, but that margin is expected to narrow as the legislation progresses through Parliament. In NSW, the Upper House is working its way through some 30 proposed amendments to the draft legislation.

The Electoral College Nightmare

Back in the days of the US Founding Fathers, the Electoral College was the brainchild of Alexander Hamilton – and in recent times, the peculiarities of the College have become apparent. The problem is not simply that the College is inherently undemocratic, in that it gives much more weight to the vote of a person living in a sparsely populated state like Wyoming than it does to a voter living in a populous state like California, or New York.

In the past 20 years, these anti-democratic foibles of the Electoral College have seen two candidates who lost the popular vote – George W. Bush and Donald Trump – still win the presidency regardless, even though they were not the choice of the majority of US voters. Now, a new working paper by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin has demonstrated that the Electoral College has systematically been working to the advantage of the Republican Party for decades.

In their baseline results, the authors find that during the past 30 years, a hypothetical Republican who earned 49 percent of the two-party popular vote—that is, the vote total won by Democrats and Republicans, excluding third parties—could expect to win the Electoral College about 27 percent of the time. A Democrat with that share of the vote would have just an 11 percent chance of winning. At 49.5 percent of the popular vote, a Republican would have enjoyed a 46 percent probability of walking away with the Presidency, versus a 21 percent chance for a Democrat. In a photo finish where the two parties split the vote about 50-50, a Republican would have had a 65 percent chance of spending the next four years in office.

Is there anything that can be done about this glaring flaw in US democracy? Given that the Senate is Republican controlled, the GOP will not voluntarily remove the handicap that its opponents face in presidential elections. If change is to occur at all, it will have to occur at state level. To that end, there is a grass roots movement called the National Interstate Compact whereby all 50 states and the District of Columbia would pledge to award all of their Electoral College votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote, nationwide.

As of mid 2019, 15 states and the District of Columbia have agreed to honour the Compact. Reportedly, they comprise 196 electoral votes, which is only 36.4% of the Electoral College but is a more impressive 72.6% of the 270 votes needed to give legal force to the Compact. So… there is still quite a long way to go. Next year, Donald Trump will once again be going into the contest for the White House with the Electoral College odds stacked in his favour.

Footnote : To compound the problems of the Electoral College, there is no existing sanction to prevent the emergence of so- called “Hamilton Electors” – who are the delegates the voters have sent to the College to vote for the presidential choice of the majority of voters from that state, but who then ignore their wishes. Basically, there is nothing to stop Electors from flipping out and voting for someone else entirely. It happened on a small scale in 2016:

In Colorado, which Clinton carried, one elector tried to vote for Ohio Governor John Kasich instead of Hillary Clinton; state officials discarded the vote, removed the elector, and referred him for prosecution on state charges. In Washington, three Clinton electors voted for Colin Powell and one for the Native American activist Faith Spotted Eagle. Under state law, their votes were recorded, but the secretary of state fined each elector $1,000 for violating the Washington elector-pledge law.

However, the Tenth Circuit of Appeals has since struck down the states’ ability to punish rebel Electors:

While the Constitution grants the states plenary power to appoint their electors, it does not provide the states the power to interfere once voting begins, to remove an elector, to direct the other electors to disregard the removed elector’s vote, or to appoint a new elector to cast a replacement vote. In the absence of such a delegation, the states lack such power. The text doesn’t tell us what an elector is (though we know he or she can’t hold any other federal office); it does tell us what states can do (control how electors are selected)—but it does not grant states any power after that…

So… if there is a tight result next year, Republicans would not only have enjoyed an unfair and entirely undemocratic advantage in the extra weight given to votes from states they do well in. There would also be no legal barrier to stop a bunch of Electors deciding to flout what the voters have voted for, and casting their ballot for Donald Trump anyway – and either delivering Trump an outright victory or at the very least, sending the election into a joint session of Congress, for it to decide the outcome.

Its Not Britney Anymore

The L.A. duo Magdalena Bay specialise in lookalike and soundalike versions of 1990s pop. Some of it offers a solid imitation of Britney-era cheerleader pop that also – on the evidence of the videos at least – intercuts the pouting and the posing with stuff (insect sexual cannabilism, anyone?) that seriously undermines the pervy aspects of the performance.

For example: on this track Mica Tenebaum does a lot of coquettish prancing around in standard jailbait mode, but she also weaves into it a series of unnerving images of praying mantises and other icky creatures devouring their mates… which is a pretty funny mixture, all things considered.

Down at the dirty old man end of the pool, esteemed hip hop veteran Danny Brown has joined forces with the even older Tribe Called Quest legend Q Tip to portray… well, lets call it the sexual desperation of the ageing player about town. Brown always did have a manic edge, but he’s mellowing into the kind of cartoon excess that Busta Rhymes used to do so well back in the day. “And we did the humpty hump/in the Burger King bathroom…” And that’s just the beginning of this special, special night. I liked the manhandling of the Jeffrey Epstein lookalike: