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A journey on the pro-choice highway

Fighting to Choose: The Abortion Rights Struggle in New Zealand
By Alison McCulloch
Victoria University Press

Reviewed by Megan Whelanfightingtochoose__73920.1355261486.1280.1280
As controversy raged online last week, over the US senator Wendy Davis’ filibuster of anti-abortion legislation, there were two kinds of comments from New Zealanders. The first: “aren’t we lucky that reproductive rights are more certain here”, was followed swiftly by those saying “oh, really?” The former could perhaps benefit from reading this book.
In the past 30 years, abortion has slowly become a political pariah – the issue to be avoided at all costs. MP Steve Chadwick’s 2010 private member’s bill died a swift and quiet death, while anti-abortion groups continue to attempt to restrict access to abortion services through the courts. And liberal women are told to shut up about abortion, because to speak too loudly about it would make candidates and parties unelectable. And all the while, women are stuck with a law that as Alison McCulloch writes, satisfies no one. It’s too close to abortion on demand for the anti-groups, and there are too many hurdles for the pro-choicers.

This book could perhaps benefit from a warning on the cover. Not because it’s particularly harrowing, though some of the stories in it are. But people should read it in full knowledge of the broken crockery and dented paint finishes that may ensue. Not because the law as it exists now is “tenuous at best”, but because of the attitudes to women exhibited in these pages. McCullough has done a wealth of work trawling through court records and private correspondence, and probably deserves a medal.
In keeping with last year’s “the female body has ways to shut that whole thing down”, is a 1975 “there is evidence to show that pregnancy protects a woman from suicide”. Then there’s former Prime Minister Rob Muldoon’s statement to the House that “women are delightful as women, and the moment that they cease to be women they become that much less delightful.” It’s a sign of how far we’ve come as women, and how far we have yet to go.
That people perceive abortion as easy to access in New Zealand highlights how many people are fudging a law described as vague, unclear, and unworkable. It also highlights the degree to which much women’s history is erased. That a fight as bitter as this one appears in Fighting To Choose, has been largely forgotten speaks volumes. If, as letter to the editor in the late seventies show, people were thoroughly sick of hearing about abortion, does that explain the reticence to push for reform now?
For those interested in the abortion debate – and McCullouch argues that the “true zone of combat has always been women’s bodies” – this is an invaluable book, if an explicitly pro-choice one. It’s easier to see where we’re going when we can see where we’ve been. If, like those letter writers in the 1970’s you’re bored of the debate, and think women should shut up about their uteruses, it still tells the story of a particularly fractious and fascinating slice of New Zealand’s history.

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Links to reviews of Fighting to Choose:
Nikki Whyte review
Ideologically Impure review
Shomi Yoon’s review
And here’s an exceprt from the book published on Werewolf.

You can follow Alison McCulloch’s book tour here.

Videos of book launch can be seen here.

Megan Whelan is a Wellington journalist.