My copy of Alison McCulloch’s Fighting to Choose: the Abortion Rights Struggle in New Zealand is now very much in second hand condition. The condition is the result of the numerous times I was compelled to throw it across in the room in disgust at the behaviour of anti-abortionists and the asinine comments, very Akin-like in nature, from politicians responsible for creating and condoning our “progressive” nation’s restrictive abortion laws. My apologies, I don’t usually treat books this way. Despite the abuse that the book suffered, I have a much better understanding of how the abortion rights struggle has played out in the past and hope for how it might be shaped in future.
Alison McCulloch undertook a mammoth task in poring over records stored in rarely accessed collections, trawling the memoirs of former politicians, talking to key activists, and attempting to interview those who weren’t so keen to recount their involvement. All this was necessary to document the political environment at the time New Zealand politicians produced a set of laws that aimed to restrict abortion, as well as the activities of pro-choice and anti-abortion advocates both leading up to and after the laws were enacted.
Following the 1977 Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act (and its 1978 amendment), Alison details the battle that has been waged mostly behind the scenes, with the majority of people blissfully unaware, as abortion is considered easy to access here in New Zealand. Women are generally grateful to be able to access abortion services at all (in the parts of the country that they can). It’s only after reading Fighting to Choose that I understand how many workarounds have been developed to allow our abortion services to function the way that they do, and I’m still a bit dubious as to how recent court case found in favour of the law being interpreted as it should be (with 98% of abortions granted under mental health grounds).
The detail of the tactics and history of both sides of the fight over our ambiguous abortion laws is what makes this book so valuable. While the answers on how to proceed aren’t supplied, it’s easy to see a few mistakes made in the past that threaten to repeat themselves and this encourages a more strategic look at how one might engage with abortion law reform. As someone who is already involved in pro-choice activism, I swung wildly from wanting to swallow my anger at politicians’ unwillingness to touch the abortion issue and join the Labour party, to fashioning protest signs and re-invigorating the snark-filled postering efforts that the more radical pro-choice activists were well known for (photographs included in the book), to starting a fundraising drive for the necessary funds to schmooze some abortion law reform out of our democratic system.
Alongside learning about the pro-choice movement’s past, I was pretty damn impressed at the organising that the anti-abortion advocates employed in the lead up to the abortion law and since, backed by well resourced religious allies still now as they were then. While I think the anti-abortion movement is well weakened in the present day as New Zealanders have generally become more secular and progressive, the unwillingness of politicians to touch the issue of abortion can be at least partly credited to the anti-abortion campaigners strong work in the 1970s. It is imperative that they are not underestimated; I was shocked to read of the harassment that politicians who dared move to reform abortion law had faced even in the last 20 years.
This book is an important part of understanding the context and content of the current abortion law and the tactics that have been tried both successfully and unsuccessfully by both sides to manipulate our lawmakers right up to the present day. For pro-choice activists, reading this book should be mandatory in order to work out how best to tackle the next part of the struggle for reproductive autonomy. It’s certainly motivated musing on my behalf. Or if that’s not what you’re into, Fighting to Choose is an interesting look at a pretty fierce battle in our small nation’s recent political history, with some feisty characters at the forefront.
I’d like to thank Alison for her work documenting this important part of New Zealand’s history and for all those who have gone before me in advocating for a law that would truly give a woman the right to choose what happens with her own body. I’m looking forward to seeing some of you back out marching, especially if you do form that ‘Grannies for Abortion’ group.
Reviewed by Nikki Whyte
Fighting to Choose: The Abortion Rights Struggle in New Zealand
by Alison McCulloch
Published by Victoria University Press