We had an amazing night at the new VicBooks last week launching Fighting to Choose: The Abortion Rights Struggle in New Zealand by Alison McCulloch.
Dame Margaret Sparrow has kindly supplied her speech notes to give you a flavour of the night. There were a lot of familiar faces there but also, wonderfully, a bunch of fresh younger faces too.
This book came about largely as a result of a generous bequest to WONAAC. Originally it was going to be a history of WONAAC – and yes it does that well - reminding us of WONAAC’s colourful history, the many campaigns of the 1970s and 80s and a chapter on those outrageous Double Standard posters from 1978-1985 – but in the process of writing this history the manuscript grew into a much more comprehensive account as the book’s subtitle indicates: The Abortion Rights Struggle in New Zealand.
Who better to write a feminist pro-choice history of this struggle than Alison? She is an acclaimed, prize-winning journalist and editor with over 20 years experience both in New Zealand and in America – so she brings both a local and international perspective. In 1990 she joined the new Rainbow Warrior on its trip to Mururoa sending her reports to The Dominion and the New Zealand Listener. She has a BA in political history from Victoria University and a PhD in Philosophy from Denver and New York. In 1999 her team at the Denver Post won the Pulitzer Prize in journalism for their coverage of the Columbine High School massacre.
Her writing style is that of a reporter from the battle lines but she is generous in acknowledging the work of others and when it helps to make a point she quotes directly from other writers. If she has one fault it is that she is incurably modest.
Her research has been meticulous and well documented in the copious end notes. She has delved into boxes of papers in libraries, waded through court reports and Hansard, interviewed 17 participants and in the process recovered much information some of which will be new to readers. She has brought into focus a number of newspaper articles that made an impact at the time and which I am grateful to be reminded about – for example on Pg 68 the open letter from James K Baxter to the Catholic Church – a gem.
She has divided the book into two parts – the first and larger part is devoted to the struggles of the 70s – the opening of the clinic (39 years ago on the 17th of this month), the Woolnough trial, the Royal Commission and the 1978 legislation. I particularly appreciated Chapter 8 on “The Report” exposing the many flaws and weaknesses of the Royal Commission Report. So often it is regarded as an authoritative document and is still referred to in court judgments but in Alison’s words on Pg 153 “The Commission’s report was filled with internal inconsistencies, logical errors, unfounded assumptions and arguably biased consideration of evidence”. Her critique is perceptive and incisive.
The second part deals with 80s and beyond up to the present day. Alison analyses why we ended up with such a bad law and argues that it is not good enough to leave things alone just because women can get abortions. The only reason they can get abortions is because the certifying consultants currently are able to give the law a liberal interpretation. But as she says on pg 274 “The current situation is tenuous at best, enshrined in no law, championed by no political party and currently under siege” [end of quote.]What we need is a way to maintain good safe medical services in an environment that respects women’s autonomy. Taking abortion out of the Crimes Act would be a good start.
In the last few decades there have been many changes in society and many shifts in attitude. This book will make you angry but it will also make you reflect on your own values. It certainly made me question mine. In the 70s I felt more comfortable with the more moderate stance of ALRANZ, with its emphasis on safety and access – what Alison refers to as the conservative medico-humanitarian approach as opposed to the more radical feminist right to choose approach of WONAAC. But over the years I have changed and so has ALRANZ, appreciating the need for a greater emphasis on women’s rights. I look forward to the new leadership in ALRANZ, under President Dr Morgan Healey, spearheading further changes.
One of the great strengths of Alison’s book is that she has been involved in both WONAAC and ALRANZ and understands only too well the common ground as well as the differences between the two approaches and how in the future both must be utilised for the benefit of women.
Understanding our history is essential as we contemplate the future. My dream for the future is much more ambitious than Alison’s. I dream of a time in the future when people have much better methods of contraception to prevent unplanned pregnancies in the first place and when these occur (as they always will) there will be a safe, reliable and private method of abortion making politicians, lawyers and doctors largely irrelevant.
But until then we will need to be resourceful and this book will help us to avoid some of the mistakes of the past. It is a must read for anyone interested in women’s issues and reproductive rights. It will be referred to by many in the years ahead. Thank you Alison for providing us with such a useful resource.
Margaret Sparrow, May 1, 2013.