An interesting ruling by the Press Council after Right to Life New Zealand complained that a column in The New Zealand Herald by Lizzie Marvelly on abortion breached a Press Council Principle on Accuracy, Fairness and Balance.
I agree that Marvelly has a right to express her opinion. ‘Right to Life’ is confusing facts with differing opinions.
- Right to Life New Zealand complained that a column in The New Zealand Herald by Lizzie Marvelly, “It’s her body, it should be her choice”, breached Press Council Principle 1, Accuracy, Fairness and Balance.
2. On May 28 The New Zealand Herald published a column by Lizzie Marvelly, “It’s her body, it should be her choice”, which presented her views on abortion.
3. Abortion is technically an offence in New Zealand under the Crimes Act (1961). The article outlined the process women have to go through as a result to get an abortion, including referral by a GP or Family Planning, and consultations with two certifying doctors.
4. Ms Marvelly wrote that although we are protective of individual freedoms, in the eyes of the law the decision as to whether an abortion can go ahead is not made by women by the doctors who care for them.
5. In practice, she said, the most commonly used justification is that continuing a pregnancy would cause serious danger to the mental health of the woman.
6. “In our modern, developed world, to have to claim mental suffering to two consultants in order to obtain an abortion is frankly paternalistic and patronising,” she said.
7. Ms Marvelly argued that a woman should not have to speak to a counsellor or wait for an enforced period between appointments to think about her decision, particularly when she may have to travel great distances.
8. She said women in New Zealand should have access to abortion services regardless of where they live.
9. She maintained it was a basic medical procedure, safer than childbirth itself, but stigmatised even today.
10. The column also outlined the current situation with regard to abortion in other countries, specifically the United States and Britain, and criticised the actions of groups which publish emotionally charged newspaper ads, erect “condescending” billboards, create websites and crisis hotlines advertising their apparently neutral pregnancy services for women.
11. Ms Marvelly wrote that this results in an environment in which women are made to feel ashamed or judged for exercising a human right “that has been affirmed by the United Nations”.
12. Right to Life secretary Ken Orr complained that Lizzie Marvelly’s column breached Principle 1, Accuracy, Fairness and Balance. He also referred to Principle 4, Comment and Fact, and 5, Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters.
13. He said the article lacked balance because there was no comment from those opposed to abortion.
14. The main thrust of Mr Orr’s complaint appears to be what he considers are factual inaccuracies in Ms Marvelly’s column. These include:
- The writer said “pregnancy does not discriminate between the prepared and the utterly unsuspecting, it just happens”. Mr Orr said, “Pregnancy does not just happen, it can be prevented by avoiding sexual intercourse”.
- The writer claimed women have to plead grave mental suffering in order to gain an abortion. Mr Orr said that was not correct as abortion is “available on demand in New Zealand”.
- By saying a woman shouldn’t need to justify her decision to anyone, least of all the Crown and its agents, Mr Orr said the writer fails to recognise the human rights of the child in the womb.
- When the writer claimed women should have access to abortion services regardless of where they live, she failed to acknowledge that abortions are not available in some areas because doctors in those areas refuse to perform them.
- The writer claimed abortions were a safe medical procedure, but failed to recognise that “abortion is not safe for the child who is violently dismembered in the mother’s womb”.
- The writer stated that obstetricians and gynaecologists in the US are being shot, clinics bombed, and vulnerable women harassed, but failed to recognise that the violence at abortion clinics happened inside the clinic.
- Mr Orr said the writer’s suggestion that the pro-life movement was responsible for the crimes committed in the US was “scandalous”. The pro-life movement is “emphatically opposed to violence against women and their unborn, as well as murder of abortionists and violence against abortion clinics and staff”.
- Ms Marvelly’s wrote that amending the Care of Children Act 2004 making it mandatory for doctors to notify parents when under 16-year-olds seek an abortion would endanger vulnerable young women who seek an abortion as a result of incest or sexual violence and undermine the trust they have in their physicians. Mr Orr described her belief as “absurd”.
- He challenged the writer’s claim that the United Nations has affirmed that abortion is a human right, quoting Article 3 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to life”.
15. New Zealand Herald Weekends Editor Miriyana Alexander denied that the column by Lizzie Marvelly breached Press Council Principle 1.
16. She said the column is an opinion piece, clearly labelled with the writer’s name on the print and online versions. Ms Marvelly was employed to write a weekly column to share her views with readers. The newspaper did not expect everyone to agree with her, but “freedom of expression is a principle we hold dear at the Herald”.
17. The editor said she did not intend to respond to the parts of the complaint which are simply views Right To Life holds in opposition to Ms Marvelly. “It is not Right to Life’s place to tell Ms Marvelly that she should hold the same view as theirs.”
18. On the allegation that the statement “the United Nations has affirmed than an abortion is a human right” is untrue because there is no UN Convention that recognises this “human right” the editor rebutted Mr Orr’s claim. Ms Marvelly did not say there was a UN Convention, she simply said that woman were “exercising a human right that has been affirmed by the United Nations”.
19. The editor provided several links to examples of the UN’s position on abortion in which it ruled that denying women abortions was a violation of human rights.
20. Lizzie Marvelly is a regular columnist for the New Zealand Herald and her June 28 column on abortion was clearly an opinion piece on a subject that has for many years inflamed public debate.
21. By their very nature, opinion pieces are frequently provocative, offensive or controversial in subject and tone, but they are exempt from many of the rules which apply to news reports, as long as it is clear that they are the writer’s opinion. Principles 4, Comment and Fact, and 5 Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters, both require that material facts on which an opinion is based should be accurate, with Principle 5 stating that with opinion pieces, balance is not essential.
22. It is clear to the Press Council that the inaccuracies Mr Orr alleges are in fact the views of the writer, which differ markedly from those held by Right to Life. Rather than attempting to prove the writer’s statements are incorrect, Mr Orr has simply countered them with the responses that his organisation routinely uses on this topic.
23. Ms Marvelly’s opinion may well be unpalatable to many, but that does not make it wrong. We agree with the editor when she says: “It is not Right to Life’s place to tell Ms Marvelly that she should hold the same view as theirs.”
24. As an opinion piece, the column was not required to provide balance and the Press Council finds no breach of Principle 1 in terms of fairness or accuracy.
25. The complaint is not upheld.