Fighting to Choose

By Alison McCulloch

Fighting to Choose: The Abortion Rights Struggle in New Zealand (Victoria University Press, May 2013) is the result of five years of research aimed at investigating how New Zealand ended up with conservative and widely scorned abortion laws that satisfy neither side of the endlessly contentious abortion rights struggle.

I take a feminist pro-choice perspective throughout the book which sets out to answer two questions, which guided both the research and the writing.

First, how was it that the New Zealand Women’s Liberation Movement and its allies failed to win one of the movement’s principal demands – the freedom for women to control their own reproductive lives? I appreciate there’s a sense in which feminists and abortion rights activists actually succeeded — lots of people have made this point — but I won’t go into how that is so in this short post. Suffice to say, we have  bad law on the books, and that law  not only hinders good medical practice, it gives official state sanction to abortion stigma and reinforces some of the social taboos we continue to endure. Bottom line: there is no ‘right’ to choose abortion in New Zealand, and the access we do have is under constant judicial and political assault.

The second question I try to focus on is what the events of the past can tell us about where the struggle might go from here. One lesson, I think, is that being defensive about abortion in the face of a conservative moral agenda doesn’t work.

The story of the abortion rights struggle in New Zealand is a rich and complex one, characterised, as most political struggles are, by larger than life characters, unsavoury tactics, intrigue, bravery and betrayal. But this contest has also been marked by a few factors all its own: religious blackmail, Parliamentary chauvinism, feminist disarray and political cowardice. Investigating just what went wrong – and what went right – for pro-choice advocates involves looking critically at all the players. Who were they and what motivated them? What tactics did they use, what successes did they have, what failures? Among other things, answering these questions helps throw light on a debate that is at least as impassioned today as it was forty years ago.

In the Conclusion, I very briefly touch on new directions the movement has begun to take in recent years away from a purely “rights” focus and toward a wider “reproductive justice” approach, something the Prochoice Highway is interested in pursuing.

There are always risks in pressing for change , but after being immersed in this issue for these past five years, it strikes me that doing nothing about abortion and reproductive rights is much the riskier course.

(Adapted from the Introduction to Fighting to Choose)

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