RIGHT TO LIFE NEW ZEALAND AGAINST NORTH & SOUTH1. Ken Orr, president of Right to Life New Zealand Inc, complained that an article headed The Meaning of Life in the October 2013 issue of North & South magazine breached the Press Council’s Principle 1 relating to accuracy, fairness and balance.
2. The complaint is not upheld.
3. The preamble to the article which covered nine pages noted that 40 years after the United States Supreme Court’s decision familiarly known as Roe v Wade, women’s rights on abortion and access to contraception were under attack in that country. Abortion was still illegal in New Zealand, “in law if not in practice,” and the author, Joanna Wane, asked “if the same could happen here.”
4. The article contained interviews with a wide range of people, including the manager of an Auckland clinic performing medical and surgical termination of pregnancies, protesters outside it, consultants, researchers, a group helping mothers keep their babies, those seeking further legal change in New Zealand and others.
5. It included much other information including the history of New Zealand abortion law, what the law says and how it has been interpreted, abortion statistics, costs, what services are available in New Zealand and where, recent legal decisions and other developments in the United States and the position of some political parties in New Zealand.
6. Those interviewed and their experiences, activities or studies were presented in a neutral manner without obvious judgment from the author.
7. In a separate piece, there were interviews with four women who had had abortions and the different impacts it had had on their lives.
8. In a wide-ranging complaint to the magazine and later to the Press Council, Mr Orr said that of 20 people interviewed, only three supported “life,” their views received a disproportionately small amount of space and that the four women interviewed about their abortions were not given the opportunity of warning other women of the potential suffering that follows an abortion.
9. The writer had not addressed the issue of when life really began as well as other related topics such as abortion being violence against women and their unborn and the offensiveness to many women of abortion being portrayed as a health service they need or want.
10. Mr Orr said the article should have emphasised how many women were having repeat abortions, while a specialist who had said ‘the law is an ass and a joke and it’s being manipulated” should have been challenged on why unborn babies were “being killed unlawfully in violation of their human rights.”
The Editor’s Response
11. In a lengthy response to Mr Orr, and later in similar response to the Press Council, the editor of North & South, Virginia Larson, said the purpose of the article was to look at the law and practice of abortion in New Zealand today.
12. To do so, Joanna Wane had to speak primarily to those working in such services and those pursuing political change. The writer found many New Zealanders believed abortion was legal, but that the law and practice were two different things.
13. The article was not about the morality of abortion. It was about the application and appropriateness of the law and was not required to give a voice to anti-abortion campaign groups. Nevertheless, adequate attention had been given to the views of such groups.
14. The article laid out a reality that was unpalatable to both sides of the debate and a conclusion that could be drawn was that it was time for the abortion issue to be given a public hearing.
15. The abortion debate in New Zealand has often been accompanied by extreme views and North & South deserves credit for tackling the topic in light of what was happening in the United States. In the process, it discovered interesting material relating to perceptions about New Zealand law and new research that questions the basis of that law.
16. Balance on such a volatile topic was bound to be questioned by proponents on either side. But the writer made a fair attempt to gather the various viewpoints and she and the magazine presented them in a readable way where all viewpoints are clearly and objectively displayed.
17. The Press Council believes the article had all the balance required for an article about the here and now, and not the rights or wrongs, of abortion services in New Zealand and new pressures in the United States.
18. Further, it is impossible to measure balance on some line by line or space-allotted criteria.
19. The complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Clive Lind, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.