Abortion law reform is back on the political agenda. It may be the ultimate polarising issue in what are often called the “culture wars” – but that doesn’t necessarily mean New Zealand is about to be embroiled in a heated and divisive battle of values, says Dr Bryce Edwards. 

Both in New Zealand and around the world, politics are increasingly revolving around non-economic policy issues that divide societies along lines that are more “liberal vs conservative” than “left vs right”. 

Earlier this year, I gave the following examples of the type of “culture war” issues that have become more important in New Zealand politics: “Debates about issues relating to ethnicity, gender, sexuality, human rights, discrimination, disabilities, and so forth have become much more prominent over recent years. And divisive topics such as abortion, euthanasia and drug law reform, will continue to be extremely difficult for politicians to navigate” – see my Newsroom column, Our new culture wars.

It’s the issue of abortion that is currently on the public agenda, as the Law Commission published its three options for reform this week. New Zealand is set to go down the route of what could be a major debate about abortion. 

When the term “culture wars” became established in US politics in the 1990s, the issue of abortion was often seen as the most polarising example (followed by other contentious debates over gun control, immigration, and separation of church and state). 

So, can we expect New Zealand will be rocked by extremely polarising debate and differences on abortion? Certainly, many New Zealanders have very strongly-held views on this, and the potential for some bitter battles being played out across the country is real.

The abortion issue is definitely getting a lot of attention. In the chart below, the number of media articles that include the word “abortion” are displayed over the last 17 years. This is derived from an online database of numerous print publications such as The New Zealand Herald, the various Stuff newspapers such as The Dominion Post and The Press, as well as magazines such as The Listener.

This chart suggests that the number of published articles about abortion remained relatively stable since 1991, with normally about 700 published each year. But since 2017, the number of published articles mentioning “abortion” has started to skyrocket, with the issue coming onto the public agenda in the early part of last year. And this year, the number of articles already published amounts to 1587 (which suggests a straight extrapolation estimation for the whole year of 1928). 

As I’ve argued before, the increasing propensity for discussion about issues such as abortion relates to the more radical political period we are now in. Since the global financial crisis of 2008, there has been a global explosion of all types of anti-establishment or anti-status quo ideas, ideologies and movements. 

Whether it’s in the form of nationalism, populism, socialism, or feminism, we have seen more radical movements and ideologies underpin the debate and elections in countries everywhere. The #MeToo movement, and the agenda to progress women’s rights on issues such as abortion is a part of this bigger radical trend. 

The focus on abortion law reform in New Zealand has, of course, also been given a boost by the successful referendum in Ireland this year, which liberalised abortion laws there. That particular case showed that in 2018 liberal reformers are in the ascendancy – which is really what we can expect to occur here. 

Opinion surveys have shown that a majority of the public are in favour of women being able to access abortions. The most recent survey shows that two-thirds of the public agree that a woman should have the right to choose whether or not she has an abortion, with only 14 percent disagreeing. 

Therefore, the war on this issue is largely won. There simply isn’t any great indication that conservatives are willing and able to put up much of a fight to prevent reform. The institutions that might have been expected to mobilise protests and campaigns don’t seem to be up to the fight. Certainly, some churches will put forward their statements of opposition, but not much mobilisation will result from this. And the official pro-life groups are hardly the influential organisations that existed back in the 1970s. 

In fact, it’s the National Party that everyone will look to for opposition to reform. But as the legislation change will ultimately come down to a conscience vote in Parliament, the party itself will be unable to put out a united message on the issue. Most parties will be divided – with the Greens likely to be the exception. 

National MPs Chris Penk and Simon O’Connor watch anti-abortion activist Jacqui de Ruiter addressing a rally at Parliament. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

In the end, this debate is unlikely to cause huge societal upset and division. But for National it could prove extremely uncomfortable to navigate. Party leader Simon Bridges has already signaled his opposition to liberalisation, saying that the current rules don’t need fixing. This was the line pushed by the previous National leader, Bill English, who was also a socially-conservative Christian. 

Bridges has adopted the US Republican Party’s phrase in which he says he’s in favour of abortion being “rare, safe and legal”. But his opponents will use his position to paint him as being a conservative who is out of touch with modern New Zealand. And so, Bridges and National can probably only lose votes on this issue.

National’s strategic vulnerabilities on abortion will only spur on Labour’s reform campaign. And certainly, the Government and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will receive plaudits for the changes and for being on “the right side of history”. 

And that raises the question of why previous Labour-led governments have been unwilling to reform abortion laws. The pro-choice Helen Clark failed to do so in the 1980s when she was Minister of Health, and when she was Prime Minister for nine years she and her government ensured that the issue of reform never got onto the agenda. Caution triumphed, with fears that reform might be unpopular. 

That’s all changed now. Social views have been slowly but steadily liberalising since the original Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act was passed in 1977. Abortion has gradually become more acceptable to the wider public. Yet over that forty years politicians of all sides have effectively kicked for touch on the issue, happy with a compromise situation in which abortion laws have been draconian in theory, but liberal in practice. 

Therefore, the politicians – from Labour and National alike – have simply not kept up with social progress. But what’s happening now is that all politicians are having to catch up with the public’s more progressive views. And that’s why any “culture war” over abortion is likely to be relatively mild. 

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