Abortion rights struggle makes compelling read

FIGHTING TO CHOOSE<br>The Abortion Rights Struggle In New Zealand<br><b>Alison McCulloch</b><br><i>Victoria University Press</i>
FIGHTING TO CHOOSE<br>The Abortion Rights Struggle In New Zealand<br><b>Alison McCulloch</b><br><i>Victoria University Press</i>
If you are inclined to reading aloud interesting excerpts from books to your nearest and dearest, you might find you are hoarse at the end of Fighting to Choose: The Abortion Rights Struggle in New Zealand.

Alison McCulloch's book is a real page-turner, no matter what your views on abortion.

What makes it so fascinating is its portrayal of New Zealand's politics and society in the 1970s and 1980s.

As McCulloch puts it in her introduction, the story is a ''rich and complex one, characterised, as most political struggles are, by larger-than-life characters, unsavoury tactics, intrigue, bravery and betrayal''.

There are also funny moments, including the time activists posing as pregnant women later released their helium-filled ''pregnancy'' balloons saying ''Abortion A Woman's Right'' into the parliamentary debating chamber.

Apparently, the balloons bobbed around for weeks until they ran out of gas.

Although I lived outside New Zealand for part of the 1970s, I was surprised how little I knew or remembered of the numerous twists and turns of the whole saga, or the intensity of the battle by the lobbyists on either side.

(I had, however, recalled the 1989 case recounted by McCulloch involving Dunedin woman Mary O'Neill (a former Evening Star reporter) dressing up in a Santa suit and going into Dunedin Hospital to try to dissuade women waiting to have abortions from going ahead. She was arrested for trespass. The charges were initially dismissed, but O'Neill was later convicted as the result of a Court of Appeal ruling.)

McCulloch makes it clear from the outset she is pro choice and placing women at the centre of abortion decision-making.

She is unhappy with the existing law, under which many women have to claim ''mental instability'' in order to get an abortion.

(Other grounds are risk to the mother's life or physical health, risk of the child being seriously handicapped, pregnancy resulting from incest or unlawful sex with a guardian, or the mother being classed as ''severely subnormal'').

She points out rape, age and socio-economic factors are not grounds for abortion under New Zealand law.

If failure to liberalise New Zealand's abortion laws could be tied to a single cause, it would be the 1975-77 Royal Commission on Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion, McCulloch says.

The commission of inquiry approach was never going to work for abortion because everything was in dispute, ''there was no middle ground (though many insist such ground exists), no neutral path and in the end, no way of avoiding coming down on one side or the other''.

She shows how the commission ''at times descended into farce''

using ridiculous extracts from hours of cross-examination of sexual health physician Dr (now Dame) Margaret Sparrow.

At the time, Dr Sparrow had a medical advice column in Forum magazine, but instead of being asked about her contributions, her opinion was sought on 33 of the magazine's most salacious extracts, none of which had anything to do with her.

The law passed in 1977 following the commission's report proving unworkable.

Too few doctors were willing to act as certifying consultants.

Thousands of women wanting abortions went to Australia for them.

Public pressure resulted in some changes: adding foetal abnormality as a ground and removing the problematic requirement that to approve an abortion, as well as determining the grounds in the Crimes Act had been met, certifying consultants had to be satisfied the danger of continuing the pregnancy could not be averted by any other means.

McCulloch says neither conservatives nor liberals are happy with the existing law, but few on the liberal side are willing to campaign for improvements, such as decriminalising abortion, because they fear a conservative moral backlash might result in a more restrictive law.

After reading this account of the history, it is easy to understand why.

• Elspeth McLean is a columnist and former ODT health reporter.

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