Do you remember the passing of the gay marriage bill into law? I do. It was 2013 and MP Louisa Wall wore a sparkly rainbow jacket in Parliament. She looked incredible and she spoke with passion, as did many of our representatives that night.
When the moment came – completing a social revolution that began with the decriminalisation of homosexuality 27 years earlier – the House burst into spontaneous applause. Then, from the public gallery, came the notes of the love song Pokarekare Ana, and soon the whole chamber echoed with music. I remember watching, and crying with joy.
Last night, as I watched the passing of the Abortion Legislation Bill, I thought I would feel the same. I thought I would feel elated. Instead I feel flat.
This bill, which drags abortion from the Crimes Act and into the 21st century, has also been a long time coming. The law was last updated in 1977. Dame Margaret Sparrow, the 84-year-old abortion campaigner, has been fighting for it her entire adult life.
It will have a huge impact. The biggest change is that women will be able to make decisions about their pregnancy with their doctor, without the law being involved. Rather than convincing two medical professionals that a termination would pose serious danger to their physical or mental health, they will be able to self refer in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. They won’t have to go to hospitals. It represents significant change in terms of trusting women with their reproductive rights.
And yet. When the bill passed last night, 51 of our Members of Parliament voted against it. That is depressing. That is 51 people saying that in fact, they don’t trust women. That they want to control their rights.
Additionally, the bill wasn’t what it should have been. The Law Commission, in its recommendation on reform, submitted three options for consideration.
These included having no statutory test to make sure the abortion was appropriate at any point; taking abortion out of the Crimes Act but having a statutory test; or only having a test for later-term abortions, after 22 weeks.
Abortion campaigners, and feminists, overwhelmingly supported Option A.
Instead, we’ve gone with a hardened version of Option C – meaning after 20 weeks a doctor – after consulting at least one other qualified health practitioner – would have to agree that an abortion is appropriate, having regard to the woman’s physical and mental health and “overall wellbeing”.
This rule fails to acknowledge not only a woman’s right to make decisions, but the sheer practical reality of a later-term abortion – in that women don’t just wake up one day and decide they don’t want to be pregnant. In almost all cases, these procedures only happen if the mother or baby is at risk of death.
But perhaps worst of all, the law has left an option for doctors to “conscientiously object” to treating women who want either contraception, sterilisation or abortion. This is the only area of medicine where such a rule applies. It means access for some women will remain challenging. It also means that once again there is disparity that only applies to women’s rights. (Okay and yes, to vasectomies, but if you think about it – that also largely becomes a women’s issue).
This is why I feel so disappointed. Because not only is the pace of change for gender equality absolutely glacial, when it does come, we’re still left wanting more. The same goes for the gender pay gap (just give us pay transparency already), and domestic violence legislation (can we criminalise stalking?), and the sexual violence bill currently going through the house (please address consent).
The changes aren’t enough, and yet we are expected to be grateful for anything at all, and patient for anything more. Why?
I recently discussed this with employment lawyer Steph Dhyrberg. Her take was that change is more incremental for women specifically because they’re women’s issues. That if these were issues which affected men, change would be far swifter.
But because we live in a patriarchy, and the tools and the power are in the hands of people who are mainly not women, anything that benefits women is simply not a priority.
It’s misogynist. And do you know how to tell it’s misogynist? Because on issues like abortion – unlike with pay equality or the gender gap on boards, where ask men to cede privilege to women – abortion doesn’t affect men. It’s not asking them to give anything up. It literally does not affect them. It has nothing to do with them. It is only to do with control.
Last night, in Parliament, the National MP Amy Adams gave a stunning, and moving speech, about the impact of that control, and why it’s wrong, and how to address it, and it’s worth repeating here:
“I’ve sat with, and held the hand, over my life, of women that I know and love that have had to make an incredibly difficult decision to have an abortion. I’ve seen them face the delays, the difficulties, the struggles, the judgment, the abuse, frankly, and feel marginalised and criminalised because of our law and that is not okay.
“I have an absolutely innate view that Parliament needs to stay out of the medical and personal decisions of women’s lives. Women have an inalienable right to control their bodies and reproductive systems. It would be utterly unconscionable for any woman to have a child she doesn’t want. It would be unconscionable and would not be the right thing for that child.
“I’m very happy to brand myself a feminist. I’m very happy to stand up for the rights of women and to respect the autonomy of women and I will continue to do that. I trust women. I trust women.”
At the end of her speech, Adams paid tribute to Margaret Sparrow. That is fair and deserved.
But the true tribute would have been for our Parliament to remove all barriers to reproductive rights.