Editorial: Abortion - Technology and Truth

Michael McCabe
Issue 14, November 2004

The television documentary, "My Foetus" was shown to New Zealand audiences in September this year. "My Foetus" presented viewers with amazing images of a child before birth, which revealed just how like a newborn baby a foetus is, not just in appearance, but in behaviour.

In making her documentary, producer Julia Black said that what she was trying to do was "to work through how I can keep the foetus in the picture, in a sense, but still be pro-choice." She spoke of having an abortion when she was 21 years old and how, at age 35, she had now changed her views, not because of "religion or morality", but because of the insights of technology. She spoke of technology's ability to convince by providing "a very clear window into the womb."

In 2003 New Zealand lost 18,510 children through abortion. There has been a steady increase in the rate of abortion, which shows no signs of slowing. One in four pregnancies in New Zealand now end in abortion, compared with one in ten pregnancies two decades ago. Even the Abortion Supervisory Committee which oversees the application of abortion law in New Zealand, has expressed concern about the increasing rate.

The reasons for the increase in the abortion rate over the last 25 years are complex. For the individual woman having an abortion, the effect is often traumatic with deep and long-lasting effects. The continuing increase in the abortion rate cannot be reduced to single factors or to general statements which imply that New Zealanders are callously indifferent to the death of unborn children.

There have been very significant demographic and sociological changes in New Zealand in the past 25 years. The trend towards later marriages, delayed motherhood and smaller families is now very evident. In the year to June 2004, 51% of babies were born to mothers over the age of 30, compared with 39% in the year to June 1994.

In the early 1970's the 20-24 years age group was the most common age group for childbearing in New Zealand, whereas in 2004 the most common age group for childbearing is 30-34 years. Whereas in the early 1970's the 20-24 year age group was the most common age group for childbearing, in 2003 the same age group had the highest increase in the rate of abortion.

The marriage rate has declined significantly since the 1970's, with the current marriage rate being only about one-third of the peak marriage rate in 1971. The age at which partners enter into marriage has also changed significantly. The median age for men marrying for the first time in 2002 was 29 years, compared with 23 years in 1971. The median age for women marrying for the first time in 2002 was 28 years, whereas it was 21 years in 1971.

What do we learn when we set abortion within the context of these demographic and sociological changes? And what other changes do we need to consider as part of that context?

The number of people in the 15-24 year age group with post school qualifications has increased markedly in the last 25 years, and fewer young people are leaving school without a qualification. Much of the growth at tertiary level has been the result of increased female participation in education and training.

Becoming a better educated society is a good aim in itself which must be pursued, but there are consequences which need to be considered. The Student Loans Scheme was introduced in 1992, and many young people in the 20-30 year age group now have large debts to deal with prior to obtaining mortgages and buying homes. Women in the 20-24 year age group may see having a child as preventing the completion of a qualification for which they have already accumulated a sizeable debt, with no way of paying it off. For the 25-30 year age group, establishing careers and reducing their debt load may be a major factor in delaying having children and subsequent abortions. These factors may all be part of the context for decisions women make about abortions. How well do well do we understand these factors?

Last year there was a nationwide focus on child poverty in New Zealand. Many people were astounded to learn that, by the government's own poverty indicator, one child in three in New Zealand is living in poverty. The Ministry of Health's Sexual and Reproductive Strategy 2001 refers to a New Zealand study which showed that "43% of women presenting for an abortion had a family income of less than $22,000, and more than half had a community services card". What part is poverty playing in increasing our abortion statistics?

In 2001 Marilyn Pryor, long time pro-life advocate from Wellington, visited the Netherlands to investigate why that country has the lowest abortion rate in the Western world. Her book "Abortion in The Netherlands" needs to be revisited as part of any research or action taken to reduce the rate of abortion in New Zealand. In her conclusions, Marilyn Pryor makes the following point when comparing New Zealand's high levels of abortion with the comparatively low levels in the Netherlands:

"It is clear that the law has little bearing on abortion rates in these two countries. While abortion is available as a women's right to choose in the Netherlands, it remains a criminal offence in New Zealand unless the mother's life or health is seriously endangered by pregnancy".

A focus on changing the law would be, by itself, an inadequate approach to dealing with an increasing rate of abortion. Few women go through abortion without it being a traumatic experience. The factors leading women to have abortions are complex, and sophisticated research is required if the points for intervention are to be identified and trend reversed.

"My Foetus" would have left its audience in no doubt that a human being dies when an abortion is performed. Technology has revealed truth, and has placed a new and welcome emphasis on the child. But if we are to have an effect on an increasing abortion rate, we must also seek the truth about what leads a woman to choose abortion, rather than assuming that we already know that truth.

Rev Michael McCabe, PhD
The Nathaniel Centre