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NATIONAL NEWSLETTER – FEBRUARY 2008

National President: Dr Margaret Sparrow

National Secretary: Teresa Levy                                                          website: www.alranz.org

National Treasurer: Kay Lavill

 

 


 

ALRANZ remembers

             

              December 2007 was the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Contraception Sterilisation and Abortion (CS&A) Act of 1977. ALRANZ, seven years old at the time was opposed to the Bill at all stages. It was to be based on the findings of the flawed Royal Commission published in March 1977.

              On 19 August 1977 the Bill containing 70 clauses was given its first reading. It recommended 8-12 panels throughout New Zealand, appointed by an Abortion Supervisory Committee but the panels were so unpopular that Bill Birch (National) came up with the idea of certifying consultants as a compromise. A flurry of other amendments were introduced as well.

              On 11 October the long awaited 2nd reading of the Bill began with Brian MacDonell (Labour) flourishing an eight-week-old fetus in defence of the panel system. George Gair (National) led the liberals with a proposal for approval by two doctors and no Supervisory Committee. The committee stages were interrupted by Prime Minister Rob Muldoon who, after only seven hours debate, relegated the measure to the bottom of the Order Paper. The debate would be postponed until the end of the parliamentary session.

              On Tuesday 13 December in a surprise move Muldoon brought the legislation back to the top of the Order Paper. The Birch amendment creating the system of certifying consultants was passed 44-26 and a marathon all-night sitting lasting 13 hours, saw other contentious clauses voted upon by bleary-eyed MPs.

              The amendment by Dr Gerard Wall (Labour) that an abortion cannot be performed unless every avenue in solving the health problem is explored first, was passed 41-19. After a highly charged and emotional debate the amendment by Sir Basil Arthur (Labour) removing fetal abnormality as a ground for abortion was passed 34-26.

              The amendment by Barry Brill (National) which allowed rape as a matter that might be taken into account but not a ground in itself and the removal of social and economic factors as a ground was passed 37-23.

              The committee stages finally ended at 12.25pm on Wednesday 14 December after being debated continuously for 21 hours. The liberals had been defeated on all the contentious clauses.

              On Thursday 15 December the third and final reading of the CS&A Bill was a formality. The main Bill was passed on a vote of 40-26. The other important vote was on the Crimes Amendment Bill defining unlawful abortions which passed 39-28.

              The following morning on Friday 16 December, the legislation received the royal assent, despite a last minute protest, when it was signed, by the Governor-General Sir Keith Holyoake.

              New Zealand’s only woman magistrate, Mrs Augusta Wallace was immediately appointed the first chairperson of the Abortion Supervisory Committee responsible to Parliament. Her appointment took effect from 1 January 1978.

              The Auckland Medical Aid Centre, New Zealand’s only private clinic which had opened in May 1974, closed its doors because of the effect of the clause inserted by Dr Wall ‘and the danger cannot be averted by any other means’.

              Public debate intensified. Mr Ron Jones, President of the Auckland O&G Society (Obstetricians and Gynaecologists) was appalled that fetal abnormality was not a ground for abortion and declared that he would openly defy the law. Feminists were appalled that rape was not a ground but could only be taken into consideration.

              The new procedures in the CS&A Act were to take effect from 1 April 1978 and nothing was to stop this happening despite the fact that they did not have the support of the medical profession. As it turned out the new laws proved to be unworkable. Women with certificates saying that they could have an abortion did not always have a surgeon willing to perform the operation.

              With the Auckland Medical Aid Centre closed and few abortions being done in Public Hospitals the majority of women seeking abortion had to travel to Australia. The organisation of Sisters Overseas Service (SOS) was an immediate, grass-roots, voluntary, feminist, women-centred response to the situation.

              Another response was the formation of REPEAL a nationwide organisation that collected 319,000 signatures on a petition to repeal the laws, which was swept under the carpet. The Abortion Supervisory Committee recommended changes to both the Crimes Act (the grounds for abortion) and the CS&A Act (the procedures to be followed) and Parliament voted on these changes in July 1978.

              The restrictive clause ‘and the danger cannot be averted by any other means’ was removed from the Crimes Act. Women had to first obtain the services of an operating doctor before obtaining their certificates which Dr Martyn Finlay (Labour) described as going round and round the mulberry bush in the other direction. Rape and extremes of age remained as factors which could only be taken into consideration but were not grounds in their own right.

              Following the July amendments the situation improved. Gradually clinics were established and the trans-Tasman traffic diminished. However the Auckland Medical Aid Centre had difficulties obtaining a licence under the new laws and remained closed until August 1979.

              It is time to reflect on the relevance of the 1977-78 legislation given the enormous changes in society and the medical advances that have been made in the last three decades.

              Other sexual issues have been more openly discussed, notably homosexuality, HIV/AIDS and sexual abuse. There have been advances in women’s rights and patient’s rights. Most abortions (98-99%) are carried out on the grounds of mental health and this is justified by the contention that any woman forced to bear a child against her will, will suffer psychological harm. It would be more honest and positive to state that the only ground for having an abortion is that the woman herself wishes to have an abortion.

              It is demeaning to a woman that she cannot legally decide whether or not to continue her pregnancy. Only she can be fully aware of the situation and only she must live with the consequences of her decision. To rely on the approval of two state-funded doctors who in most cases do not know her intimate situation is a travesty of justice.

              The 1977-78 laws were written for surgical techniques but since then medical methods have rendered the laws outdated. The law states that all abortions must be ‘performed’ in a licensed institution but with respect to a medical abortion what does this actually mean?

              Before an efficient early medical abortion service could be introduced, the Abortion Supervisory Committee had to seek the judgment of a High Court judge. In April 2003 Judge Durie ruled that the two types of drugs must be taken in a licensed institution but there is no need for the woman to stay there between doses or until the abortion is complete. In many countries women are able to take the second medication at home but this is not possible under New Zealand law. The uptake of medical abortion in New Zealand has been slow, largely because of the outdated laws.

              The system of certifying consultants is unnecessary and expensive. Certifying consultants were paid $5 million last year. Each consultant is paid $135 for each consultation in person and $56 for a telephone consultation. Every woman must have the approval of two certifying consultants. ALRANZ sees no need for this charade to continue. It causes delays and the sooner an abortion can be carried out the safer it is.

              In 1977 the legislation was hailed as a victory for conservatives but it has been a paper victory. If the intention was to restrict abortions as claimed, it has failed dismally. Except for a few years when abortion numbers decreased there has been a steady increase in both the rate of abortion and the number of abortions in all age groups, from nearly 6,000 in 1980 to nearly 18,000 in 2006.

              Is there anything good to say about the present laws? Well yes.

* It has provided a system for accurately reporting abortions which until then had been guesswork.

* A girl under 16 years of age is entitled to make the decision herself and this remains so despite an attempt by Judith Collins (National) to make parental involvement compulsory.

* Whatever the deficiencies it has been an incredibly safe system with no maternal deaths directly attributed to abortion in the last 30 years.

 

              Internationally there have been many changes in the last three decades. Conservative forces in the USA have seen the introduction of many restrictive laws and even Roe v. Wade which liberalised the law in January 1973 is very much under threat. However throughout the world there has been a trend towards liberalisation and an increasing emphasis on human rights. For instance, significant cases from Poland, Peru and Mexico have been argued and won in international courts.

             

              Our efforts can be strengthened by reference to important United Nations documents which New Zealand has signed:

* The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) introduced in 1979 and under review since then.

* The International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Cairo held in 1994 produced recommendations which are reviewed at 5 yearly intervals.

* The 4th World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, China in 1995. This conference produced a Declaration and Platform for Action which has also been reviewed at 5 yearly intervals.  

Parliaments here and elsewhere

 

              The New Zealand Parliament is extremely unlikely to consider the abortion issue in an election year. Meanwhile we have the long-running saga of Right to Life challenging the role of the Abortion Supervisory Committee through a judicial review in the High Court.

              Other countries have been reviewing their outdated abortion laws. In October in the UK there were commemorations marking 40 years since their laws were liberalised in 1967. (Unfortunately New Zealand did not follow suit at that time.) A parliamentary select committee has reported back recommending changes that include no longer requiring two signatures from doctors, increasing the role of nurses and making medical abortions more accessible. We should be discussing these issues in New Zealand.

              Nearer to home in Victoria the new Premier has requested the Law Commission to report back by March 2008 on options for removing abortion from the Crimes Act. The argument that abortion is not a crime but a medical procedure is compelling.

 

Obituaries

 

              Sir Edmund Hillary born 20 July 1919 died in Auckland on 11 January 2008 aged 88 years. In the 70s he supported a number of liberal causes and was an Honorary Vice-President of ALRANZ and a patron of REPEAL. His support at that time was important as public opinion favoured a more conservative approach to abortion. In later years he focused his energies on his humanitarian projects in Nepal.

 

              Shirley Smith born 10 October 1916 died in Wellington on 29 December 2007 aged 91 years, She was a lawyer, widow of Bill Sutch and long-time supporter of ALRANZ. In her obituary in the Dominion Post of 17 January the headline sums up her career in the law as ‘Smith sought justice for all’ and that included the impoverished and the marginalised such as the gangs. Black Power and Mongrel Mob members performed a moving haka at her funeral. She maintained a keen interest in ALRANZ affairs until failing health limited her activities in recent years.

 

              Helen Smith born 25 May 1927 died at Wellington on 26 December 2007 aged 80 years. She was a mathematics teacher and a Porirua City councillor from 1973-2001. She was closely involved in the community of Titahi Bay where her husband Dr Allan Smith, now retired, was a long-serving GP. She was a sister-in-law of Shirley Smith and was always an advocate for women’s rights and the pro-choice position.

 

             Rev Chad Varah born in 1911 died in England on 9 November 2007 three days before his 96th birthday. He was ordained in the Anglican church in 1936. One of his first duties, which deeply affected him, was to officiate at the funeral of a 14-year-old girl who had committed suicide at the onset of menstruation, convinced that she has some dreadful and incurable disease. In 1953 he founded Samaritans a telephone counselling service for the desperate and suicidal. He believed that much human despair could be traced back to problems arising out of sexuality. Looking back forty years later he said that he was pleased to see some improvement in social attitudes especially as regards homosexuality and abortion. Someone needing an abortion was no longer driven to despair in their search to obtain one.

 

Christian Party has a new name

 

              Gordon Copeland has had another change of party! First it was Future New Zealand Party in league with the Destiny Party. That fell apart then on 26 January 2008 the party changed its name to the Kiwi Party. However Copeland will not be leading the new Kiwi Party. That has been delegated to former co-leader and former MP Larry Baldock.

 

Book Review

 

              ‘Abortion – a worldwide perspective” by Colin Francome & Marcel Vekemans. Oct 2007. Paperback. Middlesex University Press £19.90

              The authors consider the evidence from 82 countries and show that unsafe abortion is largely a problem of poverty and present the case for changes in policy and education worldwide.

              Of relevance to New Zealand is the chapter on the positive consequences of legalising abortion. All too often it is the negative consequences of abortion that are emphasised and this is justified when discussing illegal and unsafe abortion. It is therefore refreshing to see a discussion of the positive outcomes of a safe, humane abortion service e.g. the promotion of women’s and families’ health, the quality of life, improved attitudes and practices by health care providers, improvement in human rights and gender equality and reduction of inequalitites, respect for minority rights, compliance with international conventions, economic advantages.

 

Article on cell research recommended

 

              'From 'pro-life' to anti-ethics' by AC Grayling in New Scientist 22/29 Dec 2007, p76. The author looks at the constraints on cell research by those with ethical objections. He decries the view of those who put blastocysts (small clusters of cells) higher up their scale of moral concerns than people suffering now.

Film Review

 

              The Romanian film "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," won the Palme d'Or last year at the Cannes Film Festival and it has been making an impact wherever it has been shown (not yet in New Zealand). In the film a college student undergoes an illegal abortion in communist Romania in 1987. It also depicts the student and her friend being sexually assaulted by the abortion provider. According to the film's writer and director, it is not just about abortion but also about the lack of a moral perspective which was one of the worst features of the communist regime.

              It is much more realistic than recent pregnancy-related films from the States such as "Knocked Up" and "Juno”. The latter portrays a pregnant teen and her boyfriend deciding to give up her child for adoption and return to carefree adolescence. It underestimates the life-long effect that surrendering a child is likely to have on the mother, whatever her age.

 

overseas News

 

 

Australia

 

              The controversial abortion hotline costing $15.5 million and established by the former health minister Tony Abbott is less successful than anticipated. It is being under-used by women and will now be monitored by the Rudd Government. The hotline is operated by McKesson Asia-Pacific.

 

              Marie Stopes International has carried out a survey of 2000 Australian women with unplanned pregnancies. Some of the findings were:

63% were under 24 years

60% were using contraception

10% felt uncomfortable asking a man to wear a condom

80% did not seek emergency contraception

17% believed they were infertile

49% went on to have the baby, 31 % had an abortion,

18% miscarried and 2% adopted the baby out.

The findings highlight the need for education programmes on safer sex and better use of contraception.

 

              The Bulletin December2007 /January 2008 published an exclusive interview with Melbourne obstetrician, Dr Lachlan de Crespigny on his role in the late-term abortion carried out in Melbourne which has featured in several ALRANZ newsletters over the last few years. He was granted name suppression at the time and before speaking out had to obtain a Court directive from the Victorian Court of Appeal lifting the name suppression.

              In January 2000 a 40-year-old Vietnamese woman known only as Mrs X arrived in an acute state of distress, at Melbourne’s Royal Women’s Hospital, threatening suicide if she did not have an abortion of her 32-week-old fetus suffering from a form of dwarfism. After much consultation with colleagues and the hospital administration, the abortion was carried out by Dr de Crespigny.

              In June 2000 Dr de Crespigny was sacked and four other staff, were suspended. They were later reinstated and cleared of any wrong doing. In 2001 a right-to-life Liberal Party Senator, Julian McGauran made a complaint to the Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria about the case which led to a 5½ year legal battle between the board and the hospital over access to Mrs X’s medical records, which the board ultimately won.

              The case was never about any complaint from the woman who was grateful to the doctors for their help. The board wanted to prove that it must be able to investigate all complaints. In September 2006 the board said that there was no evidence of unprofessional conduct by any of the staff and the case was closed.

              However the strain on the doctors over this lengthy investigation took its toll with Dr de Crespigny suffering severe depression. He felt that the hospital had let him down and he resigned from the senior position he had held for many years. He is now in private practice but plans to take early retirement next year. The loss of such expertise is a salutary reminder of the harm that can occur even to those professionals who practice in good faith and in the best interests of their patient.

 

United Kingdom

 

              The contraceptive pill will be available over the counter without a prescription under a pilot scheme to be introduced later this year. Pharmacists will conduct private consultations to assess health risks before offering the pill. They will also be able to provide the pill to girls under the age of 16 years without parental consent. Britain has the highest teenage birth rate in Western Europe and this is but one of a range of measures to address the problem of unplanned pregnancies.

 

U.S.A.

 

              In the build up to the presidential election candidates’ views on abortion have been widely canvassed. For the Democrats front-runners Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are both pro-choice. For the Republicans front-runner John McCain is anti-abortion.

              The 35th anniversary of the US Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision was marked by anti-abortionists with a March for Life rally starting in front of the White House with support from President Bush. Those with opposing views also turned up but there were no arrests.

 

              Figures released by the Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based non-profit organisation that monitors reproductive health issues, show a dramatic drop in the US abortion rate, down 25% since hitting a peak in 1990. In the early 1980s about one in three pregnant women chose abortion. That figure is now closer to one in five. There is a trend away from surgical abortion and by 2005 13% of all abortions were medical abortions using the abortion pill.

 

              On 1 February 2008 a Kansas judge ordered abortion provider George Tiller, owner of Women’s Health Care Services to turn over the medical records of 2000 women who sought and obtained abortions. A grand jury is investigating whether Tiller violated Kansas law, which allows women to abort a fetus after the 21st week of pregnancy, only if two doctors certify that continuing the pregnancy could kill the woman or cause substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function. Tiller's attorneys have filed appeals with the State Supreme Court and the District Court. The Center for Reproductive Rights has also intervened on behalf of Tiller's patients. Tiller's attorneys, said the request for the records is an unprecedented encroachment upon a woman's right to privacy.

 

              Another case involving medical records was heard in January 2008 in the Ohio Supreme Court. The Court declined to hear a case that sought the release of records of minors who had obtained abortions over the past 10 years at a Cincinnati clinic operated by Planned Parenthood. The parents of a 14-year-old girl filed a lawsuit against the clinic for violating the state's parental consent law, which requires an unmarried minor to obtain the consent of at least one parent before undergoing an abortion. The family was seeking the abortion records of other clinic patients in an effort to prove that the clinic had a pattern of violating the law. The appellate court upheld a lower court ruling, and said that there was no evidence that the clinic  purposely evaded legal obligations. Planned Parenthood is pleased that the court recognised the importance of privacy and confidentiality of medical records.

 

              In January 2008 the California Assembly rejected a measure that would have required physicians to inform women seeking abortions about fetal pain and give women the option of providing anaesthesia for fetuses at 20 or more weeks' gestation. The measure would have required physicians to distribute a brochure which states that fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks' gestation. In addition, women would have to sign a form either authorising or refusing the use of anaesthesia or other pain-reducing drugs. Republican legislators in the state have sponsored similar measures every year since 2004, but none has moved past its first committee hearing. The Assembly Health Committee voted 8-5 to reject the measure, with all eight Democrats voting against the bill and five Republicans voting for it.

 

Spain

 

              In January 2008 about 40 private abortion clinics in Spain held a five-day strike to protest what amounts to persecution by abortion-rights opponents and government inspectors. Organisers claimed that the authorities have failed to protect abortion clinics, staff and patients. This followed an increase in protests by abortion opponents and raids by local authorities in recent weeks. Clinics have been vandalised and clinic workers have been insulted and in a few cases assaulted. During this period police in Barcelona arrested 13 people, mostly abortion operators and anaesthetists, in raids which targeted clinics purported to be performing illegal abortions. Spain allows abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy in cases of rape, in the first 22 weeks if the fetus is malformed and at any time during pregnancy if a doctor certifies that the pregnant woman's mental or physical health is at risk.

 

Uganda

 

              A number of Ugandan MPs plan to table a private member’s bill in Parliament to force the government to ratify a treaty already signed that legalises abortion in specific circumstances. In 2006, another document, the ‘Maputo Plan of Action’ was agreed to by Africa’s Ministers of Health, Uganda inclusive. The Plan provides a policy framework for universal access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services, including safe abortion. It was officially adopted by the African Union in January 2007.

              More than 1,000 Ugandan women die every year as a result of unsafe abortions. An additional 68,000 suffer serious health complications, according to a report recently released by the Ministry of Health. In Uganda, unsafe abortions are the leading cause of maternal deaths.

              Induced abortion is permitted only when pregnancy endangers a woman’s life. However, legal abortions are very rare, given the restricted grounds, and the demanding process of obtaining approval. Providers typically require certification from three doctors, even though the law does not require this.