Pro-choice and pro-life demonstrators gathered outside Parliament last Wednesday, giving voice to two sides of an ongoing debate over abortion in New Zealand.
The Booties Project was organised by pro-life organisation Voice for Life, who assembled 13,285 pairs of baby booties on Parliament’s front lawn. Each booty represents an abortion carried out last year in New Zealand. Supporters had been knitting booties over the last nine months, said Voice for Life National President Jacqui de Ruiter. Ruiter hoped the display would prompt New Zealanders to consider “life-affirming options” instead of abortion.
“We got more booties than we required. There were more than 15,000 pairs of booties.” The booties will go to maternity centres around New Zealand.
In response to the project, the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand (ALRANZ) organised a counter-protest, which was attended by members, pro-choice supporters, and MPs. There were around 40 pro-life demonstrators, and more than double the amount of pro-choice demonstrators. Protesters carried signs with pro-choice slogans, wore costumes inspired by the dystopian television series The Handmaid’s Tale, and chanted phrases such as “my body, my choice”.
In response to protestors shouting “my body, my choice,” Ruiter says, “they are forgetting two words at the end ‘my choice to kill’”.
The counter-protesters aimed to “give people an opportunity to demonstrate their support for pregnant people being able to decide for themselves whether they will receive abortion care,” said ALRANZ National President Terry Bellamak. “Like them, we reject the stigma that still causes distress to some people who receive abortion care.”
National, Labour, and Green MPs joined pro-choice demonstrators in a show of cross-party support for safe and legal abortion. Green MP Jan Logie re-affirmed the Greens’ support for an issue that had been “put in the too-hard basket for too long,” while National MPs Amy Adams and Nikki Kaye expressed their commitment to abortion rights despite mixed levels of support within their caucus.
Voice for Life’s demonstration has been criticised for its similarity to a suicide awareness campaign by the charity YesWeCare, in which 606 pairs of shoes were collected and displayed around the Beehive, to memorialise New Zealanders lost to suicide in 2017. Many ALRANZ supporters were “disgusted” by this parallel, said Bellamak. Lily, a Victoria student who had an abortion earlier this year, described the use of the booties as “manipulative”. “For me those booties symbolise an alternative that would have ruined my life,” they told Salient.
Bellamak remains optimistic about abortion law reform. “The moral high ground has shifted,” she told counter-protesters, and urged them to remain committed to the cause because “there’s probably going to be a next time”.
The Minister of Justice has asked the Law Commission to review New Zealand’s abortion laws, calling for abortion to be treated as a health issue rather than a criminal issue. That report is due to be released in October.
Victoria University Feminist Organisation co-president Tara Ó Súilleabháin said, “unfortunately, regardless of the Law Commission’s report, the decision to decriminalize abortion will come down to a conscience vote in Parliament. This is why attending counter-protests like this one and contacting your local MPs to voice your opinions are really important if we want to see abortion decriminalised in NZ”.