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Abortion: Personal Is Political

Opinion Piece*
Dayna Berghan
National Women Rights officer
New Zealand University Students Association

After two and a half years of negotiation the medical abortion pill, Mifegyne will finally be available for use in New Zealand. The new drug will not be available over the counter at pharmacies, only at clinics and hospitals licensed to carry out abortions. In my opinion this is extremely good news for New Zealand women.

The issue of abortion has been an important issue for women's groups in NZUSA since the first women's group, UWIN (University Women's Information Network), through to WECA (Women's Education Coalition Aotearoa) up to TWFG (Tertiary Women's Focus Group). Many opinions have been canvassed in those years. The availability of RU 486 is important not only for women but also for the laws that governs abortion in New Zealand.

New Zealand's present laws on abortion were introduced in 1977 and are outdated. For a start they are written in terms that apply to surgical techniques and the laws as they stand do not permit an abortion for socio-economic reasons or in cases of rape or incest. Grounds of damage to the foetus or mental instability or danger to the mother are only acceptable in New Zealand.

Mifepristone is better known by its original name of RU486, the RU standing for Roussel-Uclaf, the French pharmaceutical firm which invested in its development, 486 just the number given to the research compound. Mifepristone is a synthetic steroid, which blocks the progesterone receptors and acts as anti-progesterone. Mifepristone alone will only result in abortion in a small number of cases so it is usually followed in 36-40 hours by a prostaglandin, which stimulates uterine contractions. In New Zealand, the UK packaging will be used where it is known as Mifegyne. Mifegyne has been used in France and China since 1998 and in the UK since 1991 and in Sweden since 1992. In the past 3 years it has been approved for use in 17 other countries including the USA

Mifegyne like all medical procedures holds a certain amount of risk (there has been one death since 1991), as does surgical abortion and pregnancy and birth itself. However the drug will give New Zealand women a choice between inducing a miscarriage and having surgery, between being in control and doing something themselves, versus having something done to them. For some this is an important distinction. Many will still prefer surgery. For others, a medical abortion will be a more natural method, more like a miscarriage. It is in my opinion important to provide safe, free informed abortion choices for all New Zealand women.

Today New Zealand woman seeking abortions are the victims of personal politics and bad commercial risk. Licensed abortion clinics today are still being picketed by anti-abortionists carrying rosaries and pictures of the Virgin Mother ever since they opened (Wellington Hospital). Attempts have been made to make the gauntlet that women have to run safer by issuing trespass notices to those picketing, they just move onto the footpath outside the clinics. Istar, (named after the Mesopotamian goddess of lave and war) is a New Zealand not-for profit company formed by five doctors in 1999, expressly for the purpose of making Mifegyne available for New Zealand women. No established pharmaceutical firm wished to be involved with the controversial abortion pill because of the commercial risk of being targeted by anti-abortionists.

I accept in this society that everyone is entitled to their opinions but I do not accept structural oppression due to personal policies that go against the well being of women and the children that they are forced to bear if not given the choice of abortion. I do not accept the stigma attached to women who chose to have abortions, as in my opinion it is a tough choice and one in which a woman would not enter lightly. I also do not accept the desperate measures that women are forced to undergo to terminate their pregnancy where abortion is not available in their region or the extreme risks that they face if they approach a back street abortionist.

I am glad that New Zealand will become the 22nd country to legalise the use of Mifegyne for abortions. I am glad that New Zealand women will be given more choice in how they control their bodies and fertility. But I am also extremely glad that the Tertiary Women's Focus Group will continue to debate and fight for the right for a woman to determine her own reproductive rights.

*The opinions expressed in this opinion piece are not those held by the Tertiary Women's Focus Group or the New Zealand University Students' Association. They are the opinion of the author herself.


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