Labour moves to legalise abortion

New Zeasland’s laws that cover abortion are a sham – they are effectively largely ignored, although they make women go through a demeaning process.

But they may soon be addressed by Parliament, something that’s long overdue. Past governments have chosen to sweep the sham under a big rug.

Newsroom: Labour moves to legalise abortion

Andrew Little surprised observers today when he revealed that a draft referral on reforming New Zealand’s abortion law had been circulated to New Zealand First and the Greens. Little said today that he received a letter from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern after the coalition was formed directing him to begin the process of reforming the law. Once the two parties give feedback, the referral will be sent to the Law Commission to make a recommendation.

Abortion in New Zealand is a crime under the Crimes Act, although the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act of 1977 allows a woman to have an abortion if she meets certain criteria and proves her need to two physicians.

Critics argue that the current legislation is out of date, inequitable, and the cause of unnecessary distress.

Currently, abortion can be granted on the grounds that the pregnancy is a risk to the physical or mental health of the mother; that there is a substantial risk the child will be seriously handicapped; that the pregnancy is a result of incest; or that the woman is deemed to be “severely subnormal”.

In 1980, a medication called RU-486 was developed allowing non-invasive medical abortions to take place for the first time. In 1987, France became the first country to legalise medical abortions.

Thirty years later New Zealand still has unfit for purpose law.

New Zealand’s law, written three years before RU-486 was developed, stipulates that abortion must take place in a clinic. This provision, intended to prevent dangerous back alley abortions, means that patients must travel to the clinic twice, simply to take a pill. For patients in rural areas, this can be a long and expensive exercise.

Dr Christine Roke, National Medical Advisor to Family Planning, said the added steps were a barrier to best practice.

“It adds time and it adds cost,” said Roke.

New Zealand is an outlier among OECD countries for the time it takes to get an abortion and the way abortions are provided to patients.

In New Zealand, a patient must be referred to two specialists to sign-off on the abortion. If one refuses, the woman may need to find a third specialist. The average time from referral to procedure is 25 days.

In New Zealand, only 15 percent of abortions are medical abortions. By contrast, 62 percent of abortions in the UK are medical abortions and 45 percent of abortions performed before nine weeks (two-thirds of the total number) in the United States are medical abortions.

We are a long way behind the times on this.

During the election campaign, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern expressed her personal view that should abortion be taken out of the Crimes Act so it is likely that this will form some part of the reform.

On Tuesday, Andrew Little refused to give much detail on what reform might look like, but suggested it might be broader than taking abortion out of the Crimes Act.

“There are more issues than just what’s in the Crimes Act … it’s also the hurdles that have been put in the way of women who are faced with making that decision,” he said.

The vote would be a conscience vote, meaning MPs would be given the ability to vote freely without following a party line. Reform is likely to be supported by the Prime Minister, liberal members of her party and the Green Party.

It would also require support from some NZ First and/or National MPs if it is to progress New Zealand abortion laws and practices into the 21st century.


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1 Comment

  1. Alan Wilkinson

     /  February 17, 2018

    Good post, PG. Long overdue rationalisation. The law was a primitive and punitive anachronism when it was drafted and hasn’t improved with time.