Protesters for women's choice march through Wellington in 1973, the same year as the Roe v Wade decision in the US. Source: Evening Post Collection, EP/1973/4154/19A-F

Opinion: I’ve spent the last week or so feeling anxious. These are anxious times, but when a fundamental idea is flipped, even across the other side of the world, it’s hard not to look around and think, ‘could that happen here, too?’ and ‘who do I know who would support this?’

I’m talking, of course, about the overturning of Roe v Wade, the ruling that 50 years ago gave US women the rights over their own uteruses. To recap: on 24 June, the US Supreme Court issued Dobbs v Jackson, which meant that the right to abortion was not automatic, but now depended on which State a woman lived in. Effectively, it meant that women living in conservative states could not access a safe pregnancy termination, unless they had the means and connections to travel out-of-state.

I wondered about the physical reaction of my body on hearing this. Why was I feeling so on edge? After all, I’m nearly 50. No chance of me getting pregnant again. And New Zealand is so different politically – can you imagine our current Supreme Court making a similar ruling?

(In fact, the same week, the NZ Supreme Court issued a ruling that ‘Family First’, a conservative lobby group, could not claim charitable status because its actions – which included opposing free access to abortion – were ‘not fair, balanced or respectful, so its advocacy is not charitable.’)

Naturally, our politicians were quick to assure us that no, of course it couldn’t happen here. Leader of the Opposition, Christopher ‘abortion is murder’ Luxon, posted “Roe v Wade is an issue for the American people who have a different set of constitutional arrangements than us.” He soon needed to add increasingly firm declarations about what he wouldn’t do if he got in power.

Unfortunately some of his MPs didn’t get the memo. Simon O’Connor’s “today was a good day!’ post, studded with fervent pink love hearts and ‘liked’ by fellow caucus members, was hardly reassuring. Neither was his“I took it down coz people reacted badly and not because the boss got worried’ non-apology.

The reactions around me weren’t reassuring either. There were plenty of the ‘oh, that’s too political to worry about’ (I guess the ending of Stranger Things is far more important then.) There was the good old Kiwi fallback, ‘eh, don’t worry, things’ll work out’. (That’s worked great for us so far on the climate change front). And then of course there was the ‘why would it worry you, it’s none of your business’.

Except, it IS my business. And it should be yours, too.

It’s about power, silly

Let’s cut through the crap. The overturning of Roe vs Wade is not about esoteric definitions of when life begins, or morality, or ‘religious freedom’ or the rights of States to make their own rules. That’s just the smoke and mirrors.

It’s about power. Specifically, who has the power to tell someone what to do with their body.

I know how that feels. I suspect lots of us do. It took me a while to work out the origin of the gnawing of my own stomach, why it felt so familiar. And then I remembered it was how I felt when my dad banned me from dating men who weren’t Chinese. His explanation, when I challenged him, was ‘you’re shaming me in front of my friends.’

This might seem pretty low stakes compared to disruption of access to abortion – where it is almost certain that more US women will now die or enter lives of poverty and violence. But it wasn’t when I was 22.

It wasn’t low stakes to feel like I couldn’t choose who I wanted. It wasn’t great to have to exclude someone I loved from my family home and not invite them to big life celebrations. And it wasn’t low stakes when my by then de-facto partner (we were living in Australia so my parents didn’t have to acknowledge we were together) died young without ever being recognised as a legitimate partner by my parents. Even now, I find it hard to forgive my dad for valuing his standing in his community over my right to choose, at the same time as recognising the cultural factors that shaped his attitudes.

The feeling in my stomach grows deeper when I read posts by academic friends about the history of abortion, and how the flip side of this control is forced terminations and sterilisations. Both are examples of reproductive rights being taken away from individuals and vested in the hands of the ruling powers. Both are way more common than most people realise, perpetuated by governments across all political spectrums.

It’s not just China, Nazi Germany, 1970s India or Cold War Russia taking part in this type of control. New Zealand has done it multiple times in the past. Some would say it’s still happening. But more on that soon.

It blows my mind to remember that abortion was only legalised in NZ in 2020. 2020! That’s only two years ago. Prior to that abortion was officially a crime, and a woman could only get one if two beard-stroking doctors agreed it was necessary, and one of them was an obstetrician. (The beard-stroking is my embellishment. But it does seem incredibly paternalistic, doesn’t it? In 1977 when this law was established women doctors would have been rare).

It’s about more than abortion

You might think this is only about women’s rights. But it isn’t. Controlling bodies – shaping populations to the desired demographics of looks, cultural values or productivity – is a very old game, and it would be rare to find a country that hasn’t done it. Abortion/ sterilisation laws are part of a very large playbook of tools – why use the heavy laws when a lighter one will do?

Take, for example, the Poll Tax that NZ enacted on Chinese migrants in 1881 and only lifted in 1944. Forcing Chinese labourers to pay a huge sum of money on entry – an amount that could only be raised by pooling the savings of a whole village or family group – effectively ensured that only fit young men applied to come. It is a little-known fact that the Chinese were invited by local authorities such as the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce, desperate for mining labour. But how to ensure that these bodies only came to work and not to breed? The answer was elegant and relied on nothing more than simple economics.

Of course, this didn’t entirely work, as some of the Chinese found local partners anyway. NZ wasn’t about to make the same mistake when it took over governance of Samoa in 1920. In laws far more brutal than the departing Germans’, the NZ Governor of Samoa promised lashes to any Chinese man found even talking to a Samoan woman because it might ‘corrupt’ her. (No punishment was given to white men doing the same thing. Even within miscegenation laws, racism is unbearably gross.)

Across the Tasman, prevailing racism allowed the government to be bolder. The ‘Stolen Generations’ – successive governments literally kidnapping Aboriginal children of mixed parentage, in order to force them into foster arrangements with white parents – was sold to the Australian public as a way of breeding/educating undesirable indigeneity out of the Australian population.

Although that policy officially ended by 1970, a colleague I worked with in the 2010s – a white Australian doctor who married an Aboriginal man – told me that she was very close to needing to officially ‘leave’ her husband in order to ensure their children weren’t taken away from both of them. The policy continued, just not under the same name or laws.

Just last week, working in Australia, I met several Aboriginal kids, wards of the State, who came to health clinic with their white foster parents. These cases are complex – there are many reasons this happens, not all of them about population control. But remembering my history lesson was enough to make me uncomfortable.

It’s a short hop to present day Aotearoa, where far too commonly there have been well-publicised cases of uplifts of Māori pēpi by Oranga Tamariki, from hospitals. Again, the factors are complex and I don’t mean to offer a critique in this essay.

But as a paediatrician, I felt very uncomfortable when I asked what would happen if this scenario played out in the location where I was working. “Just let it happen,” I was told, ‘it’s part of our policy.’ The glibness and lack of recognition of where all of this hurt was coming from, was astonishing. The gnawing in my stomach was back again.

It’s not just about power over bodies either. Power over minds, power over the prevailing culture – they’re all related.

The swinging moral pendulum

That’s because none of these law changes, or judicial interpretations of the law, can happen in isolation. A government is worth nothing without a public to respect its decisions. (Neither is a court – and there has been recent commentary asking whether the US Supreme Court has overstepped, this time). Indeed, the duty of a government is to make laws, and unmake them, if necessary, to reflect the prevailing morals of the day.

That’s why Dobbs v Jackson has been rightly criticised: the legal argument relies heavily on morals that are, to put it charitably, extremely antiquated. I wish more people understood that ethics and morality are not tablets etched in stone: they’re more like a swinging pendulum, swaying back and forth through history.

At different points in time, owning slaves was perfectly acceptable. So was paedophilia – senators in Ancient Rome quite openly engaged in relations with young boys, and in present day Carolina and Alaska, it’s legal to wed as young as 14 if parents give consent. In some countries, women are still considered property. In others, whether this is enshrined in law or not, cultural norms are enforced that women require a man’s permission to do even simple things such as driving or going to the movies.

Who pushes the moral pendulum? All of us.

Building pressure, taking action

New Zealand rightly celebrates that it was the first country to give the vote to women. But it didn’t do this in isolation – the local suffragist movement was inspired, fuelled and supported by similar actions overseas. The success of Kate Sheppard was the catalyst for other successes around the world. That first success was followed – each time after the buildup of huge moral momentum – with further changes in NZ, including the admission of women to Parliament, increased freedoms to participate in work life, and now, the legalisation of abortion. Awareness and sustained action work.

It’s not just women who have benefited from this shifting of the pendulum. Once a majority of people recognise that women should have agency over their own bodies, they are also more receptive to other ideas to do with individual agency.

For example: that humans should be able to dress in the clothes of their chosen gender without being arrested or murdered; that everyone should have the freedom to marry the person they love; that couples, no matter what gender, are recognised as parents of their children; that individuals can choose what names are written on official documentation; that disabled people should have the same access as able bodied people to live in a range of housing, to travel, to work.

The list goes on – and so does the discussion. We’ve done okay, but we’re not there yet.

Just like populations, attitudes in individuals can change, too. My father now brags about his two non-Chinese son-in-laws to friends, and passes around pictures of his mixed-ethnicity grandchildren. (Life, eh?).

But it wasn’t an easy journey for us, and it won’t be for the bigger picture, either. How easy it would be if we could just sprinkle kindness and ‘open communication’ around like fairy dust. But – sorry to burst the bubble – that stuff doesn’t work. Only hard graft does.

What will make a difference is knowledge, discussion and remembering history. Even in the days before instantaneous digital communications, Aotearoa wasn’t an island when it came to ideas and morals – far from it.

The attitudes that shifted a country from Roe v Wade to Dobbs v Jackson can, and have already, arrived here. Yes, this is about us, and always has been. Make sure you’re listening to that feeling in your stomach. Make sure you’re pushing that pendulum.

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