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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. [Volume 39, Issue 8. April 1976]

WONAAC Defends Submissions

page 31

WONAAC Defends Submissions

Dear Sir,

In reply to Carl Telford's criticism of the WONAAC submission in Salient (Issue No.7):

Telford misrepresented the submission by saying it claimed: "because of the incidence of illegal abortion, the solution is to legalise abortion." What the submission says is that unless unwanted pregnancy is recognised as legal grounds for an abortion, illegal abortion will continue, since for most women seeking abortion, there are no additional reasons such as risk to health, etc. Of the countries listed by Telford (where in spite of "legalisation", illegal abortion continues to exist), none allow abortion on request, that is, they do not consider having an unwanted pregnancy sufficient grounds. In some of the countries (Japan, Eastern Europe), the liberal laws air based on population considerations, and a woman's chances of legal abortion may be related to the number of children she has so far produced, if any. In Sweden, women must put their case before an abortion committee, which decides who get an abortion and who does not.

As long as women are unsure that their own reasons for wanting an abortion will meet with approval and consent by the authorities, some will still turn to the backstreet abortionist in the hope of certain relief.

Telford used quotes to back up his assertion that legalising abortion does not get rid of illegal abortion. The first merely said that increased illegal abortion accompanied increased legal abortion in East Germany. That tells us nothing about the ratio of legal to illegal abortion following liberalisation. The second quote simply verified what I explained above: that "liberalisation" will not invariably replace illegal abortions with legal ones.

Given the clandestine nature of illegal abortion, it is very difficult to determine the effect of legalisation on illegal abortion. It is significant that in New York State, where the law was changed in 1970 to allow abortion on request up to the 24th week or pregnancy, both the maternal death rate from abortion, and hospital admissions for incomplete abortion, reduced dramatically in a short time.(l) These are two of the visible results of illegal abortion, and are surely the "horrors" which Telford complained would still be with us if we make abortion legal.

Regarding the safety of abortion, WONAAC left it to others to elaborate on this point, since our case does not rest on it. As we said, there are dangers, but they in no way compare with the dangers of backstreet abortion, to which upholders of restrictive abortion laws would drive women. But to substantiate the claim that early abortion is safer than childbirth: in the first two years after liberalisation of the New York law, the maternal mortality rate for abortions performed before the 12th week was 1.9per 100,000. In New Zealand in 1971, the maternal death rate at childbirth was 22 per 100,000. Further, from data in the British Lane Report, in England and Wales in 1971, carrying a pregnancy to term was 5.29 times as likely to result in death as having a legal abortion before the 13th week.

Telford's "evidence" to the contrary included two references from the infamous 'Wynn Report' to the Lane Committee. The Wynn's highly selective "study", financed by a Foundation set up by the British SPUC, has been questioned by many, and it failed to convince the Lane Committee. The risks of abortion quoted by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists apply with equal if not greater force during childbirth, and yet the good doctors do not propose to limit that (perhaps because of their vested interests).

What about the dangers of appendectomy, tonsillectomy, or brain surgery? People die from these, even with the best of medical care, yet no-one is proposing to ban them. Instead, improvements in technique are sought. The same should apply to the shockingly neglected area of abortion, and birth prevention in general.

Telford's claim that the rights of the "unborn child" have been established in law for centuries is not true. Abortion laws are a recent development.(2) England's first criminal abortion statute came in 180S, and even that made a distinction at the stage of "quickening". Throughout the nineteenth century, and more strict. As late as 1920, the French government enacted a strict abortion law. The reason: to increase the population following the war. So much for the rights of the foetus. Telford quotes the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights as "proof that the "unborn child" has rights. Who is the United Nations but a collection of representatives of governments? And how many of those governments have stood up for women's rights? How much do they represent the half of humanity that has differed under their abortion laws?

Carl Telford equates "human life" with "human being", saying the destruction of the first equals the destruction of the second. Would he then prohibit contraception, since by his logic, the destruction of the life of a human ovum or sperm means "killing a human being"! WONAAC considers that a foetus is a potential human being, a potential person. A woman is an actual human being, and we believe in her democratic right to decide when and if she will reproduce.

This seems to be the issue that Telford is most muddled on. The "real problem", in his view, is that women can't have the children they conceive because of economic or social circumstances it is true that if women are really to have the right to choose, substantial resources will need to be put at their disposal to enable them to have children without hardship. (And incidentally, a pregnant woman, under strict abortion laws, cannot be said to have even the "right" to choose to continue the pregnancy - she is obliged to.)

But to assume that all or most women seeking abortion would really rather have a child is chauvinistic nonsense. Large numbers of women choose abortion because they have decided that either they want no children, they don't want them yet, or they don't want more than they already have. They do not want their lives to be dominated by unexpected pregnancies and unwanted children. They do want to shape and live a life of their own choosing.

They are rejecting the sexist idea that "anatomy is destiny", a view held by such notable anti-abortionists as Adolf Hitler.

— Kay Goodger,

(1)Guttmacher, Liberalised Abortion in N.Y. In "Abortion, Society & the Law", Walbert & Butler, eds. 1973.
(2)See text of US Supreme Court decision, supplement in above;