By Hayden Donnell, RNZ Mediawatch producer
Some said the US Supreme Court’s controversial ruling on abortion was none of our business, because we don’t have the same legal or political set-up, let alone its religious cleavages and cultural conflicts.
Opinion leaders in our media didn’t agree — and provoked a significant political response.
Days after his election to the National Party leadership in December last year, Christopher Luxon sat down for an interview where he outlined some hardline views on abortion.
Pressed by Newshub’s Jenna Lynch on whether he felt the practice was tantamount to murder, he said “that’s what a pro-life position is”.
Those comments have become newsworthy again this week, as the US Supreme Court handed down a decision to overturn the right to abortion enshrined in the decision Roe v Wade.
Local media, pro-choice advocates and politicians all expressed concern that the National leader would act on his beliefs, and work to ban a practice he considers all-but murderous, if he was able to form a government.
Their worry only escalated after National’s MP for Tāmaki, Simon O’Connor, posted a Facebook status following the Supreme Court’s decision saying “Today is a good day”.
Noted Luxon’s pro-life views
The New Zealand Herald ran an initial story focusing on how every party in Parliament had condemned the court’s ruling bar National. It also noted Luxon’s pro-life views.
Even after Luxon moved to clarify that there would be no changes to abortion law under any government he leads, Labour’s Grant Robertson said people have a “right to be sceptical” about his statements given the views he expressed to Lynch.
Newshub’s Amelia Wade pressed Luxon further on his stance, asking Luxon for his opinion of women who get abortions. He didn’t answer the question directly in Newshub’s report.
“As I’ve said I have a pro-life stance. I think it’s a very difficult and a very agonising decision,” he said.
These stories — and a corresponding outcry on social media — provoked right-wing figures who see it as an attempt to stir up a US-style culture war.
Political commentator Ben Thomas played down the concern over Luxon’s anti-abortion views in an interview on Newstalk ZB.
“We’ve seen pro-life prime ministers like Bill English, Jim Bolger, deputy prime ministers like Jim Anderton just not go anywhere near [abortion] when they’ve been in government,” he pointed out.
Plea to stop US culture war
On Twitter, he pleaded for people to stop trying to stir up US culture wars in New Zealand.
That was echoed by National’s Nicola Willis, who had been criticised for failing to speak up against the Roe v Wade ruling despite her socially liberal credentials.
“I actually think that these attempts by Labour to import US-style culture wars into New Zealand is irresponsible. It is creating needless anxiety,” she told the Herald.
The concern over abortion becoming a political wedge issue is understandable.
Its transformation into a fundamental political dividing line is part of the reason the US now has some of the most hardline abortion laws in the developed world.
But it’s worth noting there’s an element of political convenience in politicians’ statements as well.
National would benefit if people stopped talking about its leader’s publicly-stated position that abortion is tantamount to murder and go back to discussing the cost of living crisis.
It’s hard to get the politics out of politics.
Still deep divisions
Pro-choice advocates have also taken issue with the idea their anxiety is “needless”.
The decision to take abortion out of the Crimes Act in 2020 only passed by a comparatively narrow margin, 68-51.
Two-thirds of National’s caucus voted against it back then, with the aforementioned Simon O’Connor ending his speech with a Latin phrase which translates to “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord”.
National MPs also proposed several amendments to that bill which would have restricted abortion access considerably.
Former National MP Amy Adams recently told the media that deep divisions remain in National on the issue.
As for the US culture wars, they appear to have gained a foothold already. Some people might have noticed them camped out on Parliament’s lawns for the better part of a month.
The question for pro-choice supporters is whether to sit back and hope these movements don’t gain momentum, or to apply as much political pressure as possible to protect their own position.
In this case they prompted a strong commitment from an anti-abortion politician to not act on his views if in power. Arguably they succeeded by speaking out strongly and decisively.
This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.