Time for social work to make a clear stand for abortion law reform

Liz Beddoe and Eileen Joy

This week the following notice was distributed by email to members of the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers:

The Abortion Legislation Bill has passed its first reading and has been referred to the Abortion Legislation Committee with submissions closing 19 September. It is recognised that members have a wide range of views about this legislation which would have to be reflected in an ANZASW submission. For this reason, members are encouraged to make their own submission.

This statement has angered many members who are challenging the association to get off the fence and take a strong stand for reproductive freedom and social justice. Many social work bodies around the world have clearly named reproductive justice a human rights issue in which social workers take a firm stance for freedom and dignity. ​The inclusion of the suggestion that submissions must reflect the views of all members is highly ambiguous and it is unusual in submission making. This approach also seems likely to produce a weak and rather pointless submission.

Why has our association taken such a weak and prevaricating stance on this issue? The current legislation is 42 years old.  The 1977 Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act is so out of date that the youngest people who voted in the election before the abortion vote in NZ (1975 election, 1977 vote) would be 61 today. As one person on Twitter said: “Barring medical marvels, no one currently of child-bearing age has had an opportunity to vote on this issue.” ( Beddoe 2018 ). The current system poses far too many barriers and is stigmatising ( see Stanfield, 2018).

Let’s look elsewhere:

The International Federation of Social Workers promotes the right to participate in health decisions as a human right: ‘Social workers should promote the full involvement and participation of people using their services in ways that enable them to be empowered in all aspects of decisions and actions affecting their lives’ (IFSW, 2004: 4.1 Human Rights and Human Dignity section, item 2). Reproductive choice is fundamental to this participation: ‘Full reproductive freedom, including access to family planning services such as abortion, is necessary for women to retain total control of their own bodies’ (Gezinski, 2011, p.838).

The National Association of Social Workers (US) where abortion is under attack from the religious right has an explicit mandate for social work support for reproductive rights including, demanding:

abortion services that are confidential, available at a reasonable cost, and covered in public and private health insurance plans on a par with other kinds of health services;

legislation to facilitate a woman’s access to contraceptives and emergency contraception [and] ensures privately and publicly funded health insurance coverage includes access to all forms of reproductive health technologies, contraceptives, vaccinations, and medication

Furthermore, US social workers who do not provide clients with comprehensive resources pertaining to the  legal reproductive health options available to them “are in direct contravention of the  NASW Code of Ethics unless they, a) disclose the limited scope of their services and b) assist clients in obtaining comprehensive services elsewhere”. (NASW, 2017, p.117).  ​

The Queensland branch of the Australian Association of Social Workers wrote in a submission on law reform in that state:

 AASW believes that creating unnecessary bureaucratisation of the process for seeking a termination of pregnancy would undermine the overall human rights principles of any laws regarding termination of pregnancy. Considering termination of pregnancy as a health matter with a focus on the emotional, social, psychological and physical wellbeing of the woman is crucial.

The Abortion Legislation Bill  currently before the house will require objecting doctors to refer women to providers who do not object – and we expect the same principle to be true for social workers who work with clients who might wish to have an abortion.

Various polls have New Zealanders agreement in support of decriminalisation at between 64% – 70%.  Recent research highlighted an important indication of public support for abortion in New Zealand (Huang, Osborne, & Sibley, 2019).  The study examines data on attitudes to abortion taken from the 2016-17 New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study which is a longitudinal panel survey of nearly 20,000 thousand people aged over 18. Huang et al., report that a majority of those surveyed either strongly agree or agree that abortion should be legal regardless of the reason, and even more strongly support safe access if the woman’s life is endangered. Related results from New Zealand Election study surveys that show that in 2008 45% percent of those surveyed disagreed with a statement that abortion was always wrong, but by 2017 this figure had risen to almost 64%.  percent. Only 17% percent thought that abortion was always wrong.

ANZASW has always previously been in support of abortion as a health matter. In 1977 the association submission stated that abortion “Is a health issue”. Furthermore, they reiterated that the decision to have an abortion “should be that of the woman alone” however they noted that “in the event of this not being acceptable at the present time, then the most humane method, in our view is a system which involves the woman and her G.P.” Clearly  the ANZASW was committed then to a future where abortion would truly be the decision of the pregnant person, and theirs alone.

It is important to note that the 1977 submission to government is not without its flaws. It did place a heavy emphasis on the need for counselling for anyone considering an abortion, including that the pregnant person has to know what her “alternatives” are. The framing of this suggests that having an abortion in and of itself would pose a mental health risk, something we now know to be false (van Ditzhuijzen, ten Have, de Graaf, van Nijnatten, & Vollebergh, 2017). We would expect that a current submission from ANZASW would support the availability of counselling for those who need it (either before or after) without relying on the myth of abortion causing poor mental health.

A press release was issued at the time of the release of the 2018 Law Commission report, but this was barely noted in social media. The focus is interesting, suggesting an ongoing role for social workers in abortion services, rather than a clear women’s rights approach:

The Association is pleased that the restrictive, decades-old laws that regulate abortion look set to be updated. We are encouraged by the fact that all the options for reform proposed in the report call for the practice to be decriminalised and treated instead as a matter of health, in keeping with the Prime Minister and the Minister of Justice’s past statements on the issue. Social workers are committed to walking with women / wahine through their decision-making process when considering a termination of their pregnancy. Members of our profession work with the affected person to help them make an informed, clear-minded and independent decision, free from judgment and in an environment where they are not subject to external coercion. (ANZASW, 2018ba)

The official ANZASW submission to the Law Commission was developed by a rather unusual process (ANZASW, 2018b).  A request was sent to District Health Board Social Work Leaders Council requesting that a self-developed questionnaire be circulated to social workers working in the field of abortion and pregnancy counselling, thus accessing a very limited range of inputs. Responses were received from six members all of whom were registered social workers employed by District Health Boards. Effectively this submission did not make a clear stand on abortion rights, rather it is largely focused on the current services provided by social workers.

Why the conservative shift? We are very concerned that perhaps the board is frightened of a minority of fundamentalist Christians? What’s next, if social work  starts pandering to the religious right extremist views about women’s rights and roles, gender (s) and sexuality?

We also want to challenge the idea of each and every submission can reflect the wide views of members. As a peak body for social workers the association needs to show leadership. There were probably pro child smacking social workers but the association took the high moral ground on removal of the defence of smacking children in the Crimes Act. The association opposed the TPPA and that was unlikely to have reflected the views of National party voting members.  And there are social workers who are more or less mens’ rights zealots who think women are equally responsible for family violence. Do we have to pander to them? There are climate change deniers, homophobes, transphobes and…… well the list goes on. Is the board saying that unless all members agree we can’t have clear submissions on anything? This would be patently absurd.

We stand for social justice and human rights. Sexuality, gender identity, reproductive freedoms are core in human rights. Supporting law reform doesn’t makes anyone else have an abortion, marry a same sex partner and so forth. The simple answer to those who would deny pregnant people their right to bodily autonomy. ‘You don’t believe in abortion – don’t have one’. And butt out of other people’s private lives.

Readers who want to make a submission can do so here:


Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers (7 November, 2018a). ANZASW statement on Abortion Law Reform. Press release. Christchurch, NZ: Author

Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers (2018b).  Submission to the Law Commission on Abortion Law.  Christchurch, NZ: Author

Beddoe, L. (2018) Reproductive rights are a social work issue. [blogpost] Reimagining Social Work.

Stanfield, D. (2018). Abortion law reform in Aotearoa New Zealand: in search of human rights, autonomy and empathy. [blogpost] Reimagining Social Work.

Gezinski, L. B. (2012). The Global Gag Rule: Impacts of conservative ideology on women’s health. International Social Work, 55(6) 837-849.

Huang, Y., Osborne, D., & Sibley, C. (2019). Sociodemographic factors associated with attitudes towards abortion in New Zealand. New Zealand Medical Journal, 132 (1497) 9-20.

National Association of Social Workers. (2017). Social work speaks: National Association of Social Workers policy statements 2015–2017 (10th ed.). Washington, DC: NASW Press.

van Ditzhuijzen, J., ten Have, M., de Graaf, R., van Nijnatten, C. H., & Vollebergh, W. A. (2017). Correlates of common mental disorders among Dutch women who have had an abortion: A longitudinal cohort study. Perspectives on Sexual And Reproductive Health, 49(2), 123-131.

Other resources: (many resources to help social workers write a submission) ( a short summary of main points)  (Research on reproductive control as an element of coercive control in abusive relationships)

Photo credit: Jude Douglas. Rally Wellington, August 2019

3 replies on “Time for social work to make a clear stand for abortion law reform”

Thank you ..only person with a right to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy is the woman who is pregnant. You are totally right – a social justice issue. No woman should have to jump through hoops to access a procedure that should be an absolute right

Re- “The simple answer to those who would deny pregnant people their right to bodily autonomy. ‘You don’t believe in abortion – don’t have one’. And butt out of other people’s private lives.” Thanks for this statement. It expresses the issue which is at the center of this controversy despite attempts by opposing stakeholders to transform the process into a hostile “clusterf**k”!
The Abortion reform issue reflects the experiences and social control of women across the full spectrum of social, spiritual and economic rights by denying people of a voice whatever their decision.
The NZ social environment in which personal decisions of this magnitude such as (for example) about whether or not to terminate a pregnancy, go ahead with an assisted suicide, marry, or be open about sexual and gender orientation leaves people who have to make these life altering decisions wide open to external coercion.
For example what about employers who seek to coerce women employees into relinquishing their reproductive rights upon pain of loosing their job, or being passed over in the job application process, or landlords and tenancy managers who evict their tenants or refuse a tenancy application without offering alternatives because a baby may “disturb the other tenants”? Should this not be illegal?
For example in the early 90s I was present when a distraught young couple came to our weekly social club meeting asking for help. They were in a difficult financial situation, which arose after the couple conceived their first child. The social worker they had been assigned when they visited social welfare services to apply for their entitlements suggested that they should consider an abortion. (!). They were made to feel guilty for continuing the pregnancy because it would cause an undue financial burden, and their right to expect support as a family was questioned.
I was gobsmacked at the time that this couple were placed in this situation by the social worker. Too many people saw nothing wrong with the social workers conduct. For years I have had no words to express how I felt which did not frame me for appearing to be against abortion, which is emphatically not the case. My right and theirs to be heard was definitely placed under duress.
This decision (the abortion reform) has nothing to do with the purported “safety” of the medical processes – or any of the other extraneous prevarications which are being used to frustrate clear national decision making processes in order to maintain the status quo, and everything to do with protecting everyone’s personal autonomy; not just that of the “favored few” who have the “approval” of those around them.
For instance what sort of coercion does a woman with a disability experience when she becomes pregnant, or when she is faced with being coerced into a sterilization process for the social rather than medical reasons? ie being made to feel selfish for continuing the pregnancy, or expect support to exercise her right to bodily integrity. Currently, under NZ law NZ women, especially if they are experiencing economic vulnerability, possess the decision making power of a stray cat when it is taken to the SPCA. This is why we come across frightened young women giving birth alone, or being tempted to abort themselves. They are too frightened to ask for support from those closest to them, furthermore, those closest to them are absolutely coerced by shame and controversy.
Matters about personal autonomy is absolutely subject to social and political power struggles. This has the effect of “weaponizing” support services eligibility rules for people making personal decisions and who are experiencing vulnerable circumstances. Experiencing this type of coercion is excruciating and creates long term damage to mental health!
I know this from personal experience. Imagine my feelings when one day my young son who suffered from ADHD was being particularly difficult, and my mother said “God! it would have been better if he hadn’t been born!” She remains unapologetic. Yes there is much more to this story. I have had to work hard on my forgiveness gene after that experience and the issue still comes back to haunt me especially when I come across other women experiencing similar coercion.
This is why I have misgivings about the safety aspect of the child services “whanau” concept of foster care. 90% of the time its a fine policy but processes around the practice presents significant difficulties for the parents and children in families where there are family members involved who engage abusive processes in an attempt to control the family ethos.
Watching my contemporaries be coerced into what was identified as “shotgun marriages” or being coerced into a pregnancy outside of marriage and the barbaric practices that went along with the birth and child relinquishment process for a woman in those circumstances still leaves its mark on our decision making autonomy today.
Leaving the current status quo in place leaves people who are at their most vulnerable nowhere to run, nowhere to hide and nowhere to move on. Leaving this decision to individual autonomy without reforming the social support processes around this decision is akin to providing “half a pair of shoes” to someone who has none.

Kia ora Liz, thanks for (re)making the case for social workers to be behind law reform and advocating for the rights of women for abortion choice. Also for our profession to reaffirm a human rights basis for abortion choice. Your wero is timely.

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