This week the following notice was distributed by email to members of the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers:
The Abortion Legislation Bill has passed its first reading and has been referred to the Abortion Legislation Committee with submissions closing 19 September. It is recognised that members have a wide range of views about this legislation which would have to be reflected in an ANZASW submission. For this reason, members are encouraged to make their own submission.
This statement has angered many members who are challenging the association to get off the fence and take a strong stand for reproductive freedom and social justice. Many social work bodies around the world have clearly named reproductive justice a human rights issue in which social workers take a firm stance for freedom and dignity. The inclusion of the suggestion that submissions must reflect the views of all members is highly ambiguous and it is unusual in submission making. This approach also seems likely to produce a weak and rather pointless submission.
Why has our association taken such a weak and prevaricating stance on this issue? The current legislation is 42 years old. The 1977 Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act is so out of date that the youngest people who voted in the election before the abortion vote in NZ (1975 election, 1977 vote) would be 61 today. As one person on Twitter said: “Barring medical marvels, no one currently of child-bearing age has had an opportunity to vote on this issue.” ( Beddoe 2018 ). The current system poses far too many barriers and is stigmatising ( see Stanfield, 2018).
Let’s look elsewhere:
The International Federation of Social Workers promotes the right to participate in health decisions as a human right: ‘Social workers should promote the full involvement and participation of people using their services in ways that enable them to be empowered in all aspects of decisions and actions affecting their lives’ (IFSW, 2004: 4.1 Human Rights and Human Dignity section, item 2). Reproductive choice is fundamental to this participation: ‘Full reproductive freedom, including access to family planning services such as abortion, is necessary for women to retain total control of their own bodies’ (Gezinski, 2011, p.838).
The National Association of Social Workers (US) where abortion is under attack from the religious right has an explicit mandate for social work support for reproductive rights including, demanding:
abortion services that are confidential, available at a reasonable cost, and covered in public and private health insurance plans on a par with other kinds of health services;
legislation to facilitate a woman’s access to contraceptives and emergency contraception [and] ensures privately and publicly funded health insurance coverage includes access to all forms of reproductive health technologies, contraceptives, vaccinations, and medication
Furthermore, US social workers who do not provide clients with comprehensive resources pertaining to the legal reproductive health options available to them “are in direct contravention of the NASW Code of Ethics unless they, a) disclose the limited scope of their services and b) assist clients in obtaining comprehensive services elsewhere”. (NASW, 2017, p.117).
The Queensland branch of the Australian Association of Social Workers wrote in a submission on law reform in that state:
AASW believes that creating unnecessary bureaucratisation of the process for seeking a termination of pregnancy would undermine the overall human rights principles of any laws regarding termination of pregnancy. Considering termination of pregnancy as a health matter with a focus on the emotional, social, psychological and physical wellbeing of the woman is crucial.
The Abortion Legislation Bill currently before the house will require objecting doctors to refer women to providers who do not object – and we expect the same principle to be true for social workers who work with clients who might wish to have an abortion.
Various polls have New Zealanders agreement in support of decriminalisation at between 64% – 70%. Recent research highlighted an important indication of public support for abortion in New Zealand (Huang, Osborne, & Sibley, 2019). The study examines data on attitudes to abortion taken from the 2016-17 New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study which is a longitudinal panel survey of nearly 20,000 thousand people aged over 18. Huang et al., report that a majority of those surveyed either strongly agree or agree that abortion should be legal regardless of the reason, and even more strongly support safe access if the woman’s life is endangered. Related results from New Zealand Election study surveys that show that in 2008 45% percent of those surveyed disagreed with a statement that abortion was always wrong, but by 2017 this figure had risen to almost 64%. percent. Only 17% percent thought that abortion was always wrong.
ANZASW has always previously been in support of abortion as a health matter. In 1977 the association submission stated that abortion “Is a health issue”. Furthermore, they reiterated that the decision to have an abortion “should be that of the woman alone” however they noted that “in the event of this not being acceptable at the present time, then the most humane method, in our view is a system which involves the woman and her G.P.” Clearly the ANZASW was committed then to a future where abortion would truly be the decision of the pregnant person, and theirs alone.
It is important to note that the 1977 submission to government is not without its flaws. It did place a heavy emphasis on the need for counselling for anyone considering an abortion, including that the pregnant person has to know what her “alternatives” are. The framing of this suggests that having an abortion in and of itself would pose a mental health risk, something we now know to be false (van Ditzhuijzen, ten Have, de Graaf, van Nijnatten, & Vollebergh, 2017). We would expect that a current submission from ANZASW would support the availability of counselling for those who need it (either before or after) without relying on the myth of abortion causing poor mental health.
A press release was issued at the time of the release of the 2018 Law Commission report, but this was barely noted in social media. The focus is interesting, suggesting an ongoing role for social workers in abortion services, rather than a clear women’s rights approach:
The Association is pleased that the restrictive, decades-old laws that regulate abortion look set to be updated. We are encouraged by the fact that all the options for reform proposed in the report call for the practice to be decriminalised and treated instead as a matter of health, in keeping with the Prime Minister and the Minister of Justice’s past statements on the issue. Social workers are committed to walking with women / wahine through their decision-making process when considering a termination of their pregnancy. Members of our profession work with the affected person to help them make an informed, clear-minded and independent decision, free from judgment and in an environment where they are not subject to external coercion. (ANZASW, 2018ba)
The official ANZASW submission to the Law Commission was developed by a rather unusual process (ANZASW, 2018b). A request was sent to District Health Board Social Work Leaders Council requesting that a self-developed questionnaire be circulated to social workers working in the field of abortion and pregnancy counselling, thus accessing a very limited range of inputs. Responses were received from six members all of whom were registered social workers employed by District Health Boards. Effectively this submission did not make a clear stand on abortion rights, rather it is largely focused on the current services provided by social workers.
Why the conservative shift? We are very concerned that perhaps the board is frightened of a minority of fundamentalist Christians? What’s next, if social work starts pandering to the religious right extremist views about women’s rights and roles, gender (s) and sexuality?
We also want to challenge the idea of each and every submission can reflect the wide views of members. As a peak body for social workers the association needs to show leadership. There were probably pro child smacking social workers but the association took the high moral ground on removal of the defence of smacking children in the Crimes Act. The association opposed the TPPA and that was unlikely to have reflected the views of National party voting members. And there are social workers who are more or less mens’ rights zealots who think women are equally responsible for family violence. Do we have to pander to them? There are climate change deniers, homophobes, transphobes and…… well the list goes on. Is the board saying that unless all members agree we can’t have clear submissions on anything? This would be patently absurd.
We stand for social justice and human rights. Sexuality, gender identity, reproductive freedoms are core in human rights. Supporting law reform doesn’t makes anyone else have an abortion, marry a same sex partner and so forth. The simple answer to those who would deny pregnant people their right to bodily autonomy. ‘You don’t believe in abortion – don’t have one’. And butt out of other people’s private lives.
Readers who want to make a submission can do so here: https://www.parliament.nz/en/pb/sc/make-a-submission/document/52SCAL_SCF_BILL_89814/abortion-legislation-bill
Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers (7 November, 2018a). ANZASW statement on Abortion Law Reform. Press release. Christchurch, NZ: Author
Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers (2018b). Submission to the Law Commission on Abortion Law. Christchurch, NZ: Author
Beddoe, L. (2018) Reproductive rights are a social work issue. [blogpost] Reimagining Social Work. https://www.reimaginingsocialwork.nz/2018/05/reproductive-rights-are-a-social-work-issue/
Stanfield, D. (2018). Abortion law reform in Aotearoa New Zealand: in search of human rights, autonomy and empathy. [blogpost] Reimagining Social Work. https://www.reimaginingsocialwork.nz/2018/11/abortion-law-reform-in-aotearoa-new-zealand-in-search-of-human-rights-autonomy-and-empathy/
Gezinski, L. B. (2012). The Global Gag Rule: Impacts of conservative ideology on women’s health. International Social Work, 55(6) 837-849.
Huang, Y., Osborne, D., & Sibley, C. (2019). Sociodemographic factors associated with attitudes towards abortion in New Zealand. New Zealand Medical Journal, 132 (1497) 9-20.
National Association of Social Workers. (2017). Social work speaks: National Association of Social Workers policy statements 2015–2017 (10th ed.). Washington, DC: NASW Press.
van Ditzhuijzen, J., ten Have, M., de Graaf, R., van Nijnatten, C. H., & Vollebergh, W. A. (2017). Correlates of common mental disorders among Dutch women who have had an abortion: A longitudinal cohort study. Perspectives on Sexual And Reproductive Health, 49(2), 123-131.
http://alranz.org/ (many resources to help social workers write a submission)
https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/114817864/abortion-bill-heads-to-parliament-whats-changing-and-when ( a short summary of main points)
https://womensrefuge.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Reproductive-Coercion-Report.pdf (Research on reproductive control as an element of coercive control in abusive relationships)