Image: Badges from the Charlotte Museum Collection
Image: Broadsheet Magazine June 1977 Front Cover, from the University of Auckland Digital Collection
If you’re still reeling from the United States Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade, you’re not alone. The nearly-50-year-old ruling guaranteed all American women the constitutional right to safe abortion access. Its reversal has resulted in roughly half of all States declaring bans on abortion, affecting millions and likely leading to the unnecessary deaths of countless women and girls. As Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stated in the aftermath, “outlawing abortions will never make them go away. It only makes them more dangerous, especially for the poor and marginalised.”
The rolling back of abortion rights goes beyond politics and religion - It’s an assault on human rights, women’s autonomy, and gender equality. It also signals the possible draconian erosion of other fundamental rights, such as access to contraception and same-sex marriage. It’s hard not to feel angry, hopeless, and confused. How can decades of progress be reversed, seemingly overnight? Eighty-five percent of American voters believe abortion should be legal in some or all circumstances. The number of Americans who identify as pro-choice is at an all-time high. So, how were six radical conservatives able to decide the fate of 167 million women?
In Aotearoa, it might be easy to think our reproductive rights are protected, that women here are safe from ever enduring the hardships experienced by women overseas. And while that may currently be the case, due to decades of work by abortion-rights activists, we still need to remain vigilant. It wasn’t until 2020 that abortion was formally decriminalised in Aotearoa. The Abortion Legislation Bill, which removed abortion from the Crimes Act of 1961, passed by 68 votes to 51, a harrowingly narrow margin. 35 of 55 National MPs voted against the Bill, as did nine Labour MPs, due to a “conscious” voting rule that allowed personal beliefs to determine their decision. At the same time, ACT’s David Seymour successfully moved a motion to remove ‘safe zone’ protections, allowing active protesting
and possible obstruction of women entering abortion clinics in the name of ‘free speech.’
National MP Simon O’Connor declared “this is a good day” on social media following the Roe v Wade reversal. National’s current leader, Christopher Luxon, is an evangelical Christian who has spoken openly of his pro-life views. And while Luxon has since announced National’s position is not to touch existing abortion protections, Aotearoa’s women are understandably worried. With an election looming and National currently polling ahead of Labour, we can’t take the assurances of “settled law” for granted. As the discourse surrounding reproductive rights begins to spread across Aotearoa’s political landscape once again, Dame Margaret Sparrow, a trailblazing doctor and activist who has written several
publications detailing the harrowing experiences of women seeking back-street abortions throughout the 20th century, has called for our attention to be re-focused on the health benefits safe abortion access can provide. Forty-four thousand women and girls die each year globally from unsafe abortions, with millions more injured. The messaging is simple: Abortion access saves lives; it’s a basic healthcare need that should not be up for debate.
There is a clear war against women happening across conservative lines. Women who fought for abortion rights during the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s are once again calling for mobilisation to the frontlines of protests. Thousands of women across the US are currently on the streets, holding up placards that often repeat the same messages we’ve seen for decades. “Keep Your Laws Off My Body” has, sadly, retained its relevance despite generations of women growing up in a post-liberation world.
Image: Supreme Court Protestor in NYC, June 2022. Source: Brendan McDermid/Reuters, Al Jazeera.
Image: Protest badge, 1970s or 1980s, from the Charlotte Museum Collection.
Aotearoa’s wāhine, too, are taking to our cities in displays of solidarity. We’ve been here before and know our voices are the only thing standing between our freedoms and repression. For second-wave feminists, abortion was a unifying issue that represented the foundation of autonomy for women. Today, in a landscape of widening social inequality, women and girls from marginalised groups are at the most significant risk of being harmed by repressive reproductive laws. Abortion is an issue of structural social and economic inequality, and we must continue the fight of our trailblazing foresisters to ensure all women remain protected.
Ways to channel your rage from Aotearoa:
Join Auckland’s Pro-Choice Solidarity March this Saturday 16 July.
The Safe Areas Amendment Act (2022) reversed ACT’s motion to ban safe areas around abortion clinics. Email your local MP to ask them about progress on the process for abortion clinics to request safe areas be created around their premises.
To get involved, donate, and join the open letter to the US Ambassador, visit ALRANZ Abortion Rights Aotearoa.
Written by Starr Ratapu, Collections Technician and Research Support at the Charlotte Museum.