Sunday, February 25, 2024

Our Very Own Handmaid’s Tale – The Horrifying Reality of America’s Fight for Abortion Rights & How It Could Affect Kiwi Women

With abortion rights being curtailed in the U.S, how might this affect New Zealand women – and how can we stand with the sisterhood? Sarah Lang investigates.

Women’s sovereignty over our own bodies: it’s a right that our feminist forebears fought fiercely for and that we’ll fight for if the need arises – though it bloody better not. Does anyone else want to simultaneously throw up and kick the wall when we think about what’s happening in the United States?

As you likely know, a leaked draft has shown the U.S Supreme Court is ready to overturn the 1973 landmark ruling in the case of Roe v Wade, which guaranteed federal constitutional protections of abortion rights, effectively legalising the procedure. Nearly 50 years later, if the Supreme Court ruling stands (and it’s expected to, in June), it will make abortion access a decision for individual states. It’s expected that 26 states will quickly ban abortion.

Shockingly, some states are preparing to take this further. Louisiana is looking at classifying abortions as homicides. Idaho may prohibit the morning-after pill and IUDs (intra-uterine devices used as contraception). Missouri may ban ‘abortions’ for ectopic pregnancies, which are life-threatening and won’t lead to babies. It’s even possible that miscarriages could be considered crimes. MISCARRIAGES. Has The Handmaid’s Tale become real life? EXCUSE US WHILE WE SCREAM INTO A PILLOW.

All this appals Dr Tracy Morison, a senior lecturer in health psychology at Massey University, and an honorary research associate of the Critical Studies in Sexualities and Reproduction programme at Rhodes University (South Africa). The award-winning researcher is also an editor for Feminism & Psychology, a global, peer-reviewed journal focused on feminist theory and research. And she’s President of ALRANZ: Abortion Rights Aotearoa, a pro-choice organisation that has campaigned for women’s reproductive rights for 40-plus years, spearheaded for many years by game-changing reproductive-rights pioneer Dame Margaret Sparrow.

Tracy says what’s happening in the US should definitely concern New Zealand women. “We’ve seen the recent rolling back of abortion rights in other countries, like Poland and El Salvador. However, having the U.S. following this conservative trend is worrying because it’s a very influential country, not just formally in the policy space, as with the Global Gag Rule [a dangerous anti-abortion policy that risks the health and lives of women around the world], but in shaping values and views across the globe.”

“We saw an extreme version of this [influence] during the anti-vax protests here in New Zealand [in Parliament grounds] as some people sported Trump slogans, flew the U.S flag, and shared extremist right-wing content produced in the U.S. So, the worry is that restricting abortion rights would embolden conservatives here in New Zealand, and in other countries.” 

You’d like to think nothing of this kind could happen here. After all, it’s only been two years since abortion was decriminalised, as the Abortion Legislation Bill (2020) officially removed abortion from the Crimes Act. “For over 40 years abortion has been the only medical procedure considered a crime in New Zealand,” said Minister of Justice Andrew Little. “But from now abortions will be rightly treated as a health issue. The previous law required a woman seeking an abortion to go through many hoops.” These included clearance from two doctors on health grounds. An abortion was rarely refused, but there were unnecessary processes and delays.

It’s unlikely any politicians will propose abortion reform in New Zealand anytime soon. National Party leader Christopher Luxon, a Christian who describes himself as “pro-life” (meaning, of course, anti-abortion) didn’t vote in 2019 on the Abortion Legalisation Bill because he wasn’t in Parliament. That year, though, as National’s Botany candidate, he told media he was against decriminalising abortion. Now, should National form a government, he says, no changes to abortion law will be made on his watch.  

Meanwhile, Dr Shane Reti, National’s health spokesperson, voted against abortion reform. Harete Hipango, a Catholic, is another National MP who’s anti-abortion. Some politicians will be keeping a close eye on the U.S. situation, so let’s keep an eye on them.

As the U.S. situation unfolds, what can those of us wanting to stand in solidarity with American women do? Well, ALRANZ has written an open letter to the US ambassador, which can be read here. Anyone in Wellington is welcome to meet on June 16 at 12pm at Katherine Mansfield Park then walk across to present the letter to the U.S. Embassy.

This is how it begins: “We, the undersigned individuals and civil society organisations, oppose the threat to United States citizens’ fundamental civil and human rights posed by politically motivated justices of the United States Supreme Court supporting the severe and unreasonable curtailment of access to abortion services.”

And this is how it ends: “We call upon the United States government to protect the fundamental right to bodily autonomy by allowing people to end a pregnancy if they so wish… We call upon the government of Aotearoa New Zealand, to join us in condemning this attack on fundamental human rights.”

Certainly, the government has been taking positive steps. It launched, on April 26, DECIDE ( a free support helpline/telehealth service giving women information and support regarding decisions about pregnancy and abortion, and timely and equitable access to services. Meanwhile, the government recently lifted some restrictions so that health practitioners like GPs and nurses can prescribe ‘abortion medication’: a pill taken usually in the first nine weeks in what’s a ’medical abortion’ as opposed to a ‘surgical abortion’.

And in March, the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion (Safe Areas) Amendment Act 2022 was passed, meaning a ‘Safe Area’ can be created around an abortion provider’s premises. This means fewer women will have to walk past people bullying them with signs decrying abortion. GO HOME AND STAY THERE.

You’ve no doubt heard or imagined that abortion has a negative psychological effect on women. However, a paper about a landmark study at the University of California at San Francisco was published in the academic journal Social Science & Medicine in 2020. The five-year study surveyed 667 women across 21 states. Participants were asked if they experienced any emotions of sadness, guilt, relief, regret, anger or happiness over their decision. Five years after the abortion, relief remained the most-commonly-felt emotion, and 99 percent of the women said it was the right decision.

Its stated conclusion? “These results add to the scientific evidence that emotions about an abortion are associated with personal and social context, and aren’t a product of the abortion procedure itself. Findings challenge the rationale for policies regulating access to abortion that are premised on emotional-harm claims.”

The study’s lead author, professor Corinne Rocca, talked to the Guardian about it. “For years … there has been a belief promulgated or a claim made that we really need to protect women from the emotional harm that many of them will suffer from when having an abortion. There was no evidence ever to say that was actually true.”

Tracy Morison echoes this. “Relief is one of the most common emotions experienced by women ending an unwanted pregnancy. Many people don’t expect this because of the widespread claim of ‘post-abortion syndrome’, which was started by U.S. crisis pregnancy centres and then taken up more widely. So, the dominant representation of abortion is one of trauma, but this isn’t the most common experience. Of course, people’s circumstances vary: they may or may not have good support; there may be circumstances where they would otherwise see the pregnancy through, and so on – all of which will shape their experience.”

“By and large, even if people do experience stigma-related guilt or shame, most women report feeling relieved that they are able to end a pregnancy that they feel they are unable to support emotionally, physically, or financially. Robust research, notably by the American Psychological Association, debunks the notion of ‘post-abortion syndrome’, showing that distress and negative emotions are not caused by abortion but by the circumstances surrounding a pregnancy and by abortion stigma.”

This notion that an abortion is traumatic doesn’t just matter to women deciding whether to seek an abortion. It’s also part of the narrative that ‘pro-lifers’ use to help erode women’s reproductive rights. For instance, an article in (the website of an anti-abortion organisation) about a study on abortion was titled “Abortion Causes Guilt and Shame Years Later”. Surprised, much?

Even YouTube is worried about a potential ripple effect from the U.S Supreme Court decision. As per a Hollywood Reporter article, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki said in May, at the World Economic Forum, that the company is considering what content moderation it could use to prevent misinformation related to abortion. She mentioned a video which said that abortion was illegal in a state when, actually, it isn’t. “My [personal] stance is that women should have a choice when they become a mother,” Wojcicki said. “I believe that reproductive rights are human rights.”

We couldn’t agree more.

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