Abortion: Women's Group Fights for 'Real' Right To Choose

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:10 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - A small group in New Zealand is pressing for women to have what it says is a real right to choose - including the choice to refuse an abortion.

Far too often women facing unplanned pregnancies end up having abortions without ever having the opportunity to make an informed choice and give informed consent, they say.

Some of these women will later succumb to depression or other repercussions which could last a lifetime.

Philippa Peck of Abortion Concern - which does not describe itself as a pro-life group - said in an interview here that many clinics were failing to give women the type of information they needed while there was still time for them to change their mind about having an abortion.

Booklets printed in past years by government departments for use in abortion facilities were shunned by the clinics, because they contained images of developing babies in the womb. Women instead report being told that the fetus is merely "a blob of tissue" or "90 percent blood," she said.

"Withholding fetal development information ... denies women the right to conscientiously object to an abortion," she said.

It's argued that providing such information will do nothing but add to a woman's distress.

Some of these same clinics, however, are asking women whether they want to take home with them the "fetal remains" afterwards. While women are not being given the information while there's still a chance to say no, Peck claimed, they are later offered what is in effect the information they should have received earlier - in the form of the fetal remains.

"This raises the question, if the return of the aborted fetus - complete, in some cases, with identifiable body parts, including arms, legs and toes - is considered simply a part of 'fully informing women about their treatment,' why are women not being given this information while they still have a choice? Put another way, why do women not have the right to refuse an abortion on the basis of informed consent?"

Peck said that decisions about what will or will not cause women distress should not be made on their behalf. "Women should not be subject to the paternalistic notion that information about the fetus should be misrepresented or censored in their best interests."

Danah Cadman, manager of the Epsom Day Unit in Auckland - where the majority of abortions in New Zealand are carried out - confirmed Wednesday that women having abortions were offered fetal remains.

There were a variety of reasons, she said, the most important one being the cultural tradition among the country's indigenous Maoris that "anything that's removed from the body has to be returned to the earth."

For some women, it was a case of "wanting to say goodbye in private, part of a grieving process."

Cadman said about 20 percent of all women having abortions at Epsom take up the offer and "take their tissue home."

She said offering the service was not intended to be part of the process of informing women about what was happening, "because we give that information anyway."

Cadman confirmed that the clinic did not use an information booklet produced by the government, "but we do talk about fetal development and have photos, depending on the woman's needs."

'Right to choose - or only one choice?'

Pack argued that much is made of a woman's "right to choose" - but in reality women are only offered the right to choose an abortion.

There is no conception that a woman may decide rationally not to go ahead with the abortion. If a woman does make such a decision, it's assumed that she "can't be properly informed, that it's not a valid choice."

She recalled one case in which a 19-year-old single woman visiting a clinic had hesitated. "They sent her home, and told her to say to herself over and over again that having an abortion was the most useful thing she could do."

In the end she decided against ending the pregnancy, and was effectively shunned and left to cope alone.

For this reason, Peck said, the counseling function should be removed from abortion clinics. "If we did this decision-making counseling at a hospital delivery suite, there would be a huge outcry. It would be seen as heavily biased. But when it's done in an abortion clinic that's [seen as] acceptable? I think that's hypocritical.

"If we're upholding choice, we shouldn't be having this counseling taking place within an organization that only offers one outcome."

Counseling should also be screened for "coercion," she said. "To do anything less is an absolute failure ... if we're going to uphold the right to choose."

Peck, a mother of four who had an abortion in the 1970s, does not label herself as pro-life. But, after seeing identifiable body parts of her aborted fetus, she said: "I couldn't find anything to recommend in abortion. I suffered from depression for so long."

She said her group's aim is to ensure that women have the right to make an informed choice, which they cannot do if they are not forewarned about the possible consequences.

"The most important thing is being able to live with yourself afterwards. I talk to women who can't even speak because they are so emotional [after having had an abortion.] I've heard from a woman who said she didn't want to live any more."

While she did not believe that every woman suffered from having an abortion, many did, she said.

"Pro-lifers say it hurts all women. I don't believe that's honest. But the pro-choicers are no better. They say only a minority suffer after an abortion - too bad. Where's the compassion in that?"

'Society prejudiced against mothers'

Peck identified another target - "institutional prejudice" against women, which she said "sends them down the abortion fast-track, even if that's not what they want to do."

She cited a leading pro-abortion advocate in New Zealand, a doctor, who has justified her decision as a student to end an unplanned pregnancy by saying she had to get through medical school.

"My comment would be that she may have advantaged a lot more women if she had lobbied for the ability to get her medical degree part-time - which you still can't do. That would enable women to continue studying while pregnant or parenting.

"No-one should have to sacrifice their conscience for the sake of studying or employment. There's huge pressure on women to conform ... women get thrown out of mainstream society when they fall pregnant."

Having suffered herself as the result of an abortion, Peck summed up her goal as follows: "If I had been raped while walking home in the dark, and I knew of a woman who was thinking of walking home in the dark, I would offer her a ride. If she doesn't take it, that's her business. But at least she's being offered an alternative."

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow