Reproductive rights are a social work issue

Over the last few months I’ve been closely following the Repeal the 8th campaign in Ireland. The 8th Amendment in the Irish Constitution means that abortion is illegal in Ireland even where the pregnancy places a woman’s health at serious risk, in cases of rape or incest, or where the foetus is likely to die before or shortly after birth. See background to why the Irish Association of Social Workers supported the Together for Yes campaign. They said:

“Social workers come into daily contact with the most vulnerable and marginalised individuals and communities in our society and witness the ways that many of the people we work with are disproportionately and adversely affected by the 8th Amendment. In effect, the Constitution as it stands specifically discriminates against them –  the 13th Amendment gives permission for people who need a termination of pregnancy to travel to another jurisdiction, but if you’re poor, homeless, experiencing domestic violence, living with a disability, seeking asylum, are undocumented or a victim of trafficking, you do not have the same rights as others who, for a wide variety of reasons, may choose to terminate a pregnancy”.

Today people in Ireland are cheering a significant victory for the Yes vote which means that work can be done to change the constitution so that abortion can be legalised, according to an exit poll conducted for The Irish Times.

Abortion rights for women in Aotearoa New Zealand is a health and social justice concern that is likely to become more important in coming months as abortion law reform is debated. And I’m arguing that this is a major social work issue.

During the 2017 election campaign PM Jacinda Ardern promised to reform New Zealand’s abortion laws. Women’s groups, Family Planning and ALRANZ  have been campaigning for many years to decriminalise abortion which is currently still in the Crimes Act. The 1977 Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act is so out of date that the youngest people who voted in the election before the abortion vote in NZ (1975 election, 1977 vote) would be in their early 60s today.  As one Tweeter said “Barring medical marvels, no one currently of child-bearing age has had an opportunity to vote on this issue”.

The coalition government has taken steps to keep Jacinda Ardern’s promise. In February 2018, at the prime minister’s instigation, the Law Commission has been asked to undertake a review of New Zealand’s abortion laws. Minister of Justice Andrew Little has asked for options on how to change the legal framework to treat abortion as a health matter, rather than a criminal matter.

This is different from the usual Law Commission review, which results in recommendations rather than options. The Law Commission is to report back at the end of October. It called for submissions which closed on 18 May. I wrote a submission as did other social workers. Law reform is way overdue. This is an issue of human rights and social justice. Some of the points I made in my submission follow.

The current law is out of date:  The current law disregards the human rights of women and is not in accordance with international treaties to which New Zealand is a signatory especially the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). For example, sexual violation, the age of the woman, her health and social circumstances and so forth are not grounds for abortion but only matters to be taken into consideration. It is clearly discriminatory that women are not entitled to make a decision on having an abortion. In addition, the language used, for example, “mentally abnormal”, “seriously handicapped” and “severely subnormal” in the Crimes Act is demeaning to people with a disability.

Timeframes: There is a barrier for abortions on the grounds of fetal abnormality. This is a ground for termination up to 20 weeks but sometimes a diagnosis is not made until after 20 weeks and the abortion must then be done on the grounds of serious permanent injury to the mental health of the woman. The Abortion Supervisory Committee has pointed out this problem to Parliament frequently but no action has been taken. This situation is distressing for woman and families.

Discrimination: The current system is discriminatory because, while in a democracy there should be tolerance for different beliefs, anti-choice groups have imposed their views on New Zealand women for decades through political manipulation, dishonest media campaigns and blatant physical interference with women taking up their legal right to request and safely access a  medical service with privacy and dignity. As a social worker who worked in this health service in the 1980s  I dealt every day with the impact of anti-choice individuals and groups who deliberately set out to harass and intimidate people accessing a legal public health service. I was personally harassed and threatened, and experienced an arson attack on my workplace.That this harassment continues in 2018 outside some clinics is an indictment on lawmakers.

Cost and complexity: The current system is unduly complex and expensive. For the year ending 30 June 2016 the fees to certifying consultants alone amounted to around $4 million ($3,716,766). This is a direct transfer of health dollars to a group of often wealthy individuals. The procedures are unnecessarily complicated and set up bureaucratic and logistical barriers to good reproductive health care. Vulnerable, young and rural women are disadvantaged. This results in discriminatory service provision. Geographical variation in abortion and related counselling services throughout New Zealand is inequitable.

The current system patronises women: The system of certifying consultants is not only expensive but unnecessary and patronising to women. This money could be better spent on preventing unplanned pregnancies and supporting women who are vulnerable to continue their pregnancy if that is their wish. The system is intrusive and punitive, ignoring the realities that contraception is not perfect or foolproof , and that women can be coerced into not using it. Enforced pregnancy is not in the long term interests of women and children. Women always want to give their children the best start in life and facing a pregnancy and parenthood without support can be stressful and demanding.

It is time for change. The current law is outdated and does not take account of change of public attitudes towards abortion and other reproductive health issues. The current law was a political compromise, made in a parliament  in the 1970s which was dominated by men who demonstrated little understanding or compassion for women facing an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. I am pleased that there is an opportunity for parliamentarians to do the right thing and decriminalise abortion and set in place what is needed for high quality, supportive and equitable services.

This is a social work issue. It is also a human rights issue, a social justice issue and a feminist issue. Support abortion law reform.

Follow Social Workers For Choice Aotearoa NZ on Twitter for updates. @SW4ChoiceNZ

Other information:

“Abortion is not a crime: 16 reasons to change the law” – Margaret Sparrow on the Spin-Off

Change the law- ALRANZ Abortion Rights Aotearoa 

5 thoughts on “Reproductive rights are a social work issue

  1. I really understand some of the fear. Without outing myself completely, I was subjected to the most horrific online abuse this week for speaking about abortion – although it was anonymous.

    I think the fact that many social work organisations are faith based is a hindrance in them speaking out. I also think there’s a huge number of social workers who, sadly, hold anti choice views due to religion.

    In other news, I’m far more energised to start a critical social work student group ASAP and one of the first orders of business will be this. I assume you would be in Jess 😉

  2. It’s been 7 days since this was posted and so far it seems to have amassed a whole lot of….silence (we both know though, that I should be writing other, more – ahem – academic, things!)
    Why hasn’t anyone commented? Why is there a reluctance to discuss this in social work circles? Why was there no official call to social workers to submit to this monumentally important law reform? (If there was through the PSA or ANZASW or other organisations I must have failed to see it)
    I know we’ve (personally) discussed religion as a potential barrier to social workers advocating publicly, but I’m still not sure? The law says that abortion is a crime punishable by up to 14 years in prison(!!!). Regardless of religious beliefs, I feel that if the law said that vasectomy was a crime punishable by up to 14 years in prison, social workers would be marching in the streets along with every other righteously angry citizen.
    Why the (relative) apathy on this topic?

    1. Thanks Jess – I’ve been wondering about that as well. I think it is an issue that people feel is very emotional and contentious. But internationally reproductive rights are an important aspect of human rights. And women’s rights should be a significant concern for social workers. So yes , why the silence? We will need to respond to the debates are coming. My estimate is that there may be 50-60 social workers who are directly involved with people needing support to access an abortion, and many others who may indirectly come in contact with unplanned or coerced pregnancies. Do they have useful perspectives on the law and how it could be reformed to enhance social justice and empowerment? I’d like to hear from those social workers.

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