Tube Talk: Making the hardest decision
Last week’s Inside New Zealand offering, The Hardest Decision, was an unusually intelligent and well-balanced attempt to discuss the issue of abortion and its impact on New Zealand women.
It’s an issue which polarises public opinion like no other – the boundaries of the debate influenced by arguments as wide-ranging as a woman’s right to control her own body, and religious beliefs about the sanctity of human life.
But despite being a major issue for New Zealand women (over 16,500 – or 1 in 5 – pregnancies were terminated in 2001), abortion is something we avoid debating publicly or representing in drama. There’s an uneasy silence surrounding abortion, perhaps out of fear of re-igniting debate at both ends of the spectrum.
The Hardest Decision nodded in the direction of these controversies, but backed away from drawing conclusions, choosing instead to focus on the experience of a range of women dealing with their pregnancies in different ways. There was Anna, a 17 year-old who got pregnant after her first sexual experience, whose mother was herself a solo teen mum; Patricia, an 18 year-old whose Samoan family told her to hide the pregnancy, and who was eventually talked out of an abortion by a religious group; Bronte, a single mother of two preschoolers who feared she couldn’t cope with raising a third; and Melissa, a teen mum who adopted out her child.
By committing to telling the women’s stories over a period of several months, the doco’s quiet, unforced approach created an impressive and perceptive snapshot of life for New Zealand women.
Although the women’s stories crossed age, class, ethnicity and generations, their experiences were movingly - and depressingly – similar. All the subjects spoke about the shame and embarrassment of unwanted or unplanned pregnancies, and almost invariably made their decision largely alone, sometimes without even the support of counselling services.
Another extraordinary silence was revealed in the almost total absence of men as a meaningful support network or as a part of the women’s decision-making processes. The doco stopped short of assigning blame to absent fathers, but reiterated the hard truth that women must usually shoulder the burden of an unplanned pregnancy alone.
Anti-abortionists were also given their say – though, predictably, they refused to identify that the religious convictions underlying their beliefs.
But despite its desire to be even-handed, you sensed the doco makers pulled back from emphasising the pro-choice message it seemed to be heading towards. From a harrowing interview with a woman who endured a backstreet abortion in the days before legalisation, to the no-nonsense wisdom of Di Nash, a doctor at Auckland’s first abortion clinic, the pro-choice message was clear – abortion has always been a reality for women, and unless safe legal services are made available, it will be, in Nash’s words, “a life and death issue for women”.
Like Nash, the doco seemed to be advocating for law reform allowing for abortion on demand – but stopped short of taking sides on the issue. But, as the stories told in the doco so powerfully demonstrated, abortion is an issue we simply should not stay silent about.