Abortion. The word alone splits society into two halves and comes loaded with emotion. This is understandable – ending a life is not an easy decision to make, whether at the beginning or end of a human’s existence. It is a black and white issue, with most firmly in the pro-life or pro-choice camps.
I happen to be pro-choice. I have many friends who are pro-life. I don’t have a problem with their beliefs, and I respect them for having them. Most of them, in turn, respect me for my views. I also know some of the vocal pro-life camp, and have a respectful relationship with them, so don’t assume I am anti pro-life, or tar them all with the same brush, because I’m not.
Abortion has been a hot potato since I was little, and a trigger point for my passion for social justice issues. I think the stork was a little drunk when he dropped me in the cabbage patch, and I was born into a fundamentalist Christian Heritage Party SPUC family. I was probably only 5 or 6 when I was first shown pictures of aborted foetuses, was forced to watch videos of abortions, and listened to speakers condemning women – even one who wrote a book about their survival of their mother’s attempted termination (remembered it all, too!), who argued for the death penalty for these evil women. Now that’s logic!
At 7 yrs old I was taken to a SPUC protest by my parents, who alongside many other Christians joined hands around a town square in silent protest against child murderers. And I distinctly remember standing there, feeling completely out of place, because I thought that while babies deserved to live, women also deserved to live, to be well, and have children when they had a partner and money to look after one properly. And so my pro-choice voice began. I watched many of my schoolmates going through hell trying to obtain an abortion in Christchurch, which really cemented my beliefs. In my rebellious early 20’s, I studied social work and women’s studies, soaked up feminist texts and took great pride in wearing a t-shirt around Invercargill emblazoned ‘Don’t Like Abortion? Don’t Have One Then!’. Ohhh, the glares I got. And the locals who crossed the road when they got close enough to read it (I’ve never been called subtle!).
I wish there were no need for abortion. I don’t want babies to die. I wish men didn’t rape women. I wish every baby was healthy and be able to live a fulfilling life. I wish adoption was a more popular option. I wish there weren’t heinous levels of poverty in NZ. I wish some cultures didn’t cast unwed pregnant women out of their community and support network, creating extreme fear. I wish motherhood was valued – monetarily, politically and socially. I wish prospective mothers didn’t feel backed into a corner because there is no support for them. I wish prospective mothers weren’t going to be screwed over for the sin of accidentally getting pregnant while on Sole Parent Support. I wish our child support system worked. That’s why I’m in politics – because the above is what is destroying our families and our women, not abortion. But until these destructive political and social views are changed, a newly pregnant woman’s perception is her reality, and I can’t judge a single one of them.
I waded into the furore over an abortion clinic opening at Southland Hospital in August last year. It all started with an email from the amazing Alison McCulloch, from ALRANZ, and author of the recently released ‘Fighting to Choose’, who had heard about me through political networks. She asked if I’d be interested in speaking at a public pro-choice meeting, in an attempt to counterbalance meetings held by pro-life groups concerned about a potential abortion service being introduced at Southland Hospital. Intrigued, a little scared and very eager to help balance the scales, I accepted.
We filmed a news item on Cue TV that afternoon, and the meeting was held that night. As anticipated, there were rows of pro-life people as well as pro-choice people, and media. It went well. ALRANZ had many new members and supporters by the week’s end (it was somewhat amusing to see the pro-life movement claim our membership was dwindling – not so!). Things went downhill from there. (Well – not all downhill, the service went ahead and is doing great work a year on against adversity and hatred, and I am so proud of every staff member who works there. Clinic staff – our heroes!) I have to admit I underestimated exactly what level of vitriol we were in for. Naive me figured protests, stalking, threats and violence were in the southern USA and finished years ago. Not so.
It was the level of hate and irrationality that shocked even experienced pro-choice activists, and I have to admit took a toll on us all – but also made us determined to carry on for as long as it takes to ensure women had the right to choose without facing a line of furious, manipulative, bitter and judgemental fundamentalist ‘Christians’. That is what has me riled up more than anything. I’m not a believer, but I know enough genuine Christian people to know that God is love. God does not judge. God does not hate. God accepts all and forgives their mistakes. But in the extreme pro-life camp, God hates us all, we are murderers, and we and the women killing their babies deserve to rot in the pit of hell, and God will never forgive them for killing a child made in his image. Huh?
That odd religious view had some behaving badly. God must’ve been facepalming at frequent intervals. Here is some of what we encountered:
-A priest, Father Vaughan Leslie sent every Catholic child in Southland home with a school newsletter that had a quarter page spiel denouncing abortion, women who had an abortion, and a plea for all to pray that the baby killers failed in their mission to murder countless NZ children. I can really feel that warm fuzzy feeling hundreds of parents must have had – more like a dagger of guilt and self-hatred. The Jesus I read about is into forgiveness. You wouldn’t think so.
-A death threat – aimed at pro-choice activists, me included, and the Sexual Health clinic staff was emailed by someone with one of those easy to obtain and hard to trace email servers. We Greens responded with our support.
-Hilariously, the infamous Ken Orr tried a complaint to the Press Council about coverage of the threat. Nice try, but you can’t change the facts. You can’t write letters to the editor making threats against staff, you can’t write blogs and press releases detailing the same, and then turn around and say there was no threat of pro-life extremists naming staff involved in abortion at Southland Hospital. Up pops that Father Leslie’s name again.…
-There were the frantic phone calls from local media the week the clinic opened. ‘We’ve heard there’s going to be some trouble at the clinic today, thought you might want a heads up’. What happened, I asked. ‘Some guy’s rung the station promising some ‘argy bargy’ at the clinic. He wouldn’t go into specifics and he hung up on me’. Awesome! Nothing happened of course, just more intimidation. The God I read about doesn’t do gossip, threats and murder – heck, we’re getting into the 10 Commandments here, it’s not something obscure in Leviticus…
But worst for me personally were those who had no qualms about marching up to me in the middle of the CBD, at the public library, or most cowardly across the road hissed and hurled at me the words ‘Baby Killer’. ‘Child Murderer’. For a couple of months, nowhere was safe. A hurtful and disgusting thing to say to anyone, but for someone who has lost children despite a huge fight for their lives and is now ironically only able to foster and adopt, it was hideous. Hypocrite! You might think. No, no hypocrite. Ethical. I need someone to make a decision to keep their baby to have more children of my own, yes, but what kind of person would I be to manipulate a vulnerable woman into carrying her baby so I could get my wish?! I could never even contemplate it. I want more, many more women to choose adoption, but that is their CHOICE – it is not the right option for many and I accept that. I choose to work on legislation that helps bring our adoption laws into the 21st century to make it more attractive, and fair on everyone.
That’s why these ‘Pregnancy Crisis’ centres set up by Catholic organisations scare the crap out of me. Read the Catholic church’s views on abortion then compare that language to the slick PR that is the website they want pregnant women to read. Hmmmm, yes…. sure…. that same God I read about doesn’t do trickery either!
I’ll fast forward a year of encounters with extremists to last week – an example that stands out to me as especially sad. What seemed like a lovely old lady in her 80’s walked past our counter-protest on her way to the corner where Southlander’s for Life protest every Thursday (Murder Day….). She looked like a delightful granny, and I smiled at her and commented on the nasty weather. ‘Yes, isn’t it dreadful’, she replied with a smile. Once she got far away enough from us though, she turned and shrilled “Murderers! Murderers! You’re going to the pits of hell for a fiery eternity for killing God’s children!!!” On her way back to her car, she had another go. More hell, more murder, this time aimed at the evil women who were there to kill the precious babies they were throwing away for a life of parties. Perhaps if she saw the pain and anguish on the women and couple’s faces waiting in the waiting room, she would realise that this is no throwaway decision. But probably not, she’s too caught up in her world of hate. If that was what she was prepared to say to my face, imagine what she would say to one of these precious women?
It really frustrates the pro-life extremists that we won’t just shut up and go away. They feel that they have the ultimate authority on abortion, because they have God on their side. But do they really? God is love. God is kindness. God is compassion. God is forgiveness. I don’t see an ounce of God in any of the above.
The clinic marks its first anniversary tomorrow. We went to the clinic last week with a giant card full of support from ordinary New Zealanders, and an equally giant box of chocolates. It was so good to finally meet, thank and hug the staff, who are doing what many will not, doing what is needed. Doing the right thing. Suffer the little children to come unto me, the Bible says. I would much much rather a little child go back to God’s arms to be born into a family ready for him/her, than force another child to suffer what many children have to suffer because the NZ we live in doesn’t help mums, or children.
Let’s get back to fixing that, and then celebrate the abortion rates going down.
Rachael Goldsmith is a Green Party spokesperson, ALRANZ spokesperson, community activist, tertiary ed tutor, mother and foster mother from Invercargill, NZ.