4 Oct 2015

Contraception controversy sparks debate

From Mediawatch, 9:11 am on 4 October 2015

Social Development Minister Anne Tolley created controversy with comments about contraception this week. She won praise for taking a tough stance and she was also condemned for interfering with fundamental human rights. But what did she actually say?  

screenshot of social development minister Anne Tolley talking to TVNZ's Michael Parkin

Social Development Minister Anne Tolley talking to TVNZ's Michael Parkin Photo: screen shot

On TVNZ’s Q+A show last Sunday, Ms Tolley was asked how to stop bad parents having more children. She replied cautiously:

Well, that’s very difficult for the state to do. I certainly think we should be providing more family planning, more contraceptive advice to some of the families. I know of cases that CYF have taken the sixth and seventh baby from. The question I’ve asked is, ‘So what advice now is going into that parent?’

When pressed on “being tough about these things,” she was even more guarded:

AT: Well, that’s a big step when the state starts telling people- you know, deciding that, ‘You can have another child, and you can’t.’ That’s a huge step for the state to take.

Q+A: But you’re not ruling that out being part of the next report that comes to you?

AT: Well, we’ll wait and see what the panel report.

Soon after, a TVNZ press release said: "The Social Development Minister would not rule out more actively trying to limit or prevent births to families which have come to the attention of authorities".

A controversy was born.

Fairfax Media’s Stuff website then reported this:

Certain families which had come to the attention of authorities may be prevented from having more children by the government. 

The issue led Morning Report on Monday. One report was posted online with the heading: Birth control for beneficiaries?, though Ms Tolley had said nothing about beneficiaries. A TVNZ News online story carried a caption which said:

Anne Tolley has come under fire for suggesting sterilisation to combat domestic violence

Mediawatch couldn't find any reports in which Ms Tolley had made such a suggestion.

With the controversy in full flow, Ms Tolley was asked about sterilisation in radio interviews on Monday and she made it clear she hadn't advocated it. But a Tom Scott cartoon in the Dominion Post on Wednesday suggested she did.

On Tuesday Ms Tolley told Newstalk ZB:

You shouldn't put words in people's mouth. I've never, ever suggested that you compulsorily sterilise these families and I would never, condone that.

In an editorial on the controversy last Thursday, the Otago Daily Times said of efforts to improve child welfare: "Any meaningful conversation must use honest language".

It was directed at politicians and advocates, but the spin put on Ms Tolley's comments in the media this week show it applies to journalists too.  

How many babies born into care?

Another issue: people following the story in the media were left with no idea of the scale of the problem.

Ms Tolley referred several times to a woman having six or seven babies taken away, and she seized on a Morning Report listener’s story about an unnamed woman who had eleven children in CYFS care.  But when asked how common cases like this are, she had no figures.

The head of the Family Planning Association couldn’t put a number on it either on Radio Live, and Mediawatch couldn't find any new reports this week with any figures at all. 

But they're not hard to find. Last year, CYFS figures for the previous five years showed an average of around 160 babies a year are taken from the parents. In 2013, the Waikato Times reported nearly 800 newborn babies were taken from their mothers and put into care in the five previous years.

Contraception for bad parents also flared up as an issue in 2012, when the social development minister at that time, Paula Bennett, made medium-term contraception free for beneficiaries. One million dollars was set aside for this over four years, and she was accused of social engineering and punishing the poor. Five months later, she was on Nine to Noon being asked why only 35 women took up the offer.

As faster, more targeted contraceptive advice is the one thing  Ms Tolley clearly signalled she does support this past week, it would have been useful to know if Ms Bennett's policy had proved any more effective since then. But that was also missing from reports of this week's contraception controversy, which was long on interpretations and opinions, but short on actual facts.