New Zealand: Where a Person Isn't a Person, but a River is

Alex Eastwood-Williams

It seems the 21st century really is an extraordinary time to be alive. Unfortunately, I don't mean that in a good way. 

We live in a bizarre age when men are women, women are cats, landmasses are people, but unborn people aren't people.

In New Zealand, the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Bill was passed last week and declared, among other things, that the Whanganui River is a person.

That's right, it's considered a living breathing entity, subject to human rights and recognised as such. The fact that it is nothing more than a massive amount of liquid is irrelevant to our ivory tower overlords.

In fact, as Clause 15 of the bill points out, Te Awa Tupua appears to be a severely disabled person, who requires two other people to act on its behalf. Apparently being a river doesn't mean you're not a person - it's just a severe disability. How dare you discriminate against whatever gender pronoun you're supposed to use to describe a river!

In saying that, you could be forgiven for thinking I'm angrier than I am at the Te Awa Tupua Bill.

I'm actually not that angry at it. In fact, I think it's a very clever, if unorthodox, piece of legislation and I take my hat off to those who wrote it. 

As a part Maori myself I can sympathise with the view that the Whanganui River is sacred, or considered a living being, even if I don't necessarily agree that such a belief should be entrenched in our legal system. I can sympathise with the view that the river, or areas like Te Urewera, ought be protected and I can even understand the view that our present conservation laws are insufficient to provide this protection, thereby requiring government to take the unusual step of granting natural resources the same rights as a person. 

So why am I angry?

Well, the simple reason is that I am seeing the decision to grant the rights of personhood to an inanimate blob of liquid juxtaposed against a growing and vocal movement of people (including a massive push by the Murdoch-owned New Zealand Herald) who wish to deny the right of personhood to human beings. 

Of course, by "growing and vocal movement" what I really mean is that they've always been there, but now that we have a Roman Catholic Prime Minister, the media is flogging the issue for all it's worth.

For the benefit of those unaware of the history of abortion law in New Zealand, under the Crimes Act 1961 it is a criminal offence to murder your unborn child.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s abortion was an extremely divisive and contentious issue, dividing those who believed that a woman has the right to choose whether or not to carry out a pregnancy to its conclusion (but conveniently ignoring the fact that she already has a choice over whether or not to get pregnant in the first place, and that impregnating a woman against her will is an extremely serious crime) from those who believe that all New Zealanders deserve the right to life, including those who are yet to make that final journey down the birth canal.

Such debates resulted in a compromise - in my opinion probably the best compromise on this issue anywhere in the world - in the form of the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act 1977. 

While legal protection was still offered to the unborn, and abortion remained illegal, important protections were offered to the mother who could terminate a pregnancy in the case of negative physical or mental health effects on the mother, incest or "foetal impairment".

The rights of the child are protected. The rights of the mother are protected. We all win and for the next forty years focus on more important issues.

Suddenly in comes a Catholic Prime Minister (and it's not much a novelty because the last Catholic Prime Minister was only 20 years ago) and the media lose their collective minds over an issue that has not been discussed seriously in any election manifesto, or by the Prime Minister's three predecessors, or had any effect whatsoever on any election outcome since the 1960s. 

But the liberal media have decided to manufacture outrage over the 252 abortion requests that were deemed unjustified and denied in 2014 - conveniently ignoring and indeed not even mentioning the 13,137 abortions performed that year - a number that's actually considered low. To rub salt into the wound of what is, frankly, a massacre, an editorial by the Christchurch Press is quite happy to admit that these high numbers are due to doctors agreeing to bend the rules - rules designed to protect the innocent.

Thanks to years of semantic arguments conditioning the young and impressionable into believing the old myth that "a foetus is not a person" (against all scientific evidence), the pro-abortion people and their surrogates in the mainstream media seem hell-bent on destroying the consensus that has kept this issue from exploding for 40 years - a consensus that, statistics show, leans in favour of pro-abortionists anyway due to the lax enforcement of the law.

As it happens, I understand that there are occasions when abortion is a necessary evil. Those occasions are recognised by the 1977 Act. I know people (women, if I'm to be politically incorrect and actually refer to a gender) who have found themselves in a position wherein they've had no choice but to terminate a pregnancy. I know and understand the psychological suffering that many of them go through, the guilt that they feel, and understand that branding them murderers when they had no other option doesn't help them. 

I certainly would not support, for example, extreme right-to-life legislation such as that in the Republic of Ireland. 

But I'm sure as hell not going to sit here and be told that it's okay to run around killing unborn human beings for no good reason beyond an inability on the part of the mother to take responsibility for her actions, and then to be told that those unborn people are not in fact people.

Traditionally language was used to describe facts that are observed in the world. Today the ivory tower class believe they can use language to decide "facts" and shape the world. To believe you have the power to decide what is true and what isn't through semantics alone is a display of extreme arrogance on the part of our legislators and judicial branch. 

I am not going to accept that unborn people aren't people in a country where a river is a person.