It surprises many people to find out that abortion is still illegal in New Zealand, a country with a proud history of being at the forefront of woman’s rights. It can be performed lawfully but requires approval from two certifying consultants and justification under one of the strict grounds specified in the Crimes Act. These grounds are that the pregnancy is a threat to the physical or mental health of the woman, fetal abnormalities up until 20 weeks’ gestation, or the pregnancy is a result of incest or severe mental abnormalities or disabilities on the part of the woman.
The Abortion Supervisory Committee (ASC), a non-partisan group tasked with overseeing abortions throughout New Zealand, has called to review the current law. They argue that the above limitations mean virtually all women get approval for an abortion under mental health reasons. This differs from the majority of countries in the OECD where socioeconomic reasons, existing children or rape are grounds for termination of a pregnancy.
Fetal abnormalities are not a ground for termination of pregnancy after 20 weeks’ gestation. This is an arbitrary distinction, especially because most fetal abnormalities are not detected until 20 weeks or later. It forces women to say they are getting an abortion for mental health reasons, instead of the underlying fetal abnormalities. This causes issues for doctors as they cannot accurately record or gather data for such abnormalities.
The ASC also points to outdated medical terminology in the law, medical abortions did not exist when the laws were written. They also point to offensive language in the law that refers to people with disabilities as “subnormal”.
The biggest shortcoming of New Zealand’s abortion services is our failure to provide efficient care. Early gestation terminations lessen the emotional distress and likelihood of complications. New Zealand lags behind other OECD countries as only 56% of abortions are performed in the first nine weeks, whereas in Britain 80% of abortions are performed in this time.
The majority of politicians support abortion being removed from the Crimes Act, but very few have proposed any legislative change to achieve this, instead calling it a ‘conscientious issue’. As the parties release their policies closer to the election it will be interesting to see if any of them make it a party issue.
Justice Minister Amy Adams has said there will no update of the law under the current National government. Leader Bill English has conservative voting history, he voted against same sex marriage, against civil unions and against prostitution law reform. His conservative stance on social issues views differ from the majority of New Zealand.
Party Leader Andrew Little has supported review of abortion laws in New Zealand. He stated that abortion law in New Zealand is outdated and should be modernised. However, Labour has not yet released comprehensive policy on abortion or submitted a member’s bill. Labour could differentiate themselves here from National and try get the progressive vote by making abortion law reform part of their policy. But this may put them at risk of losing the older, conservative vote.
The Green Party is the only major party so far to make abortion a party issue and proposed that abortion be decriminalised in New Zealand. However, Jan Logie, sixth on the Green Party’s latest list, said they would not be introducing a private members bill as it would be unlikely to pass before the general election. The addition of abortion law reform as a party issue fits with the progressive and socially liberal ideas of the Green party.
David Seymour has supported calls for reforming the current abortion law, calling it archaic. Seymour has also criticised the Greens and Labour for ‘grandstanding’ on this issue without taking any concrete action. Review of the law aligns with the libertarian ethos of Act, arguing it would give the individual the right to decide what is best for them as opposed to the government regulating it.
Maori – the Maori party has not released any official policy on abortion reform. Co-Leader Marama Fox has argued it needs an overhaul. She advocates for parental notification for young women under 16 years of age undergoing a termination of pregnancy. The ASC strongly disagrees with this move arguing it would put these young women at risk.
New Zealand First – Another party without a clear stance on abortion. But they have said in the past any reform should be decided by a citizen-initiated binding referendum. A recent poll of New Zealanders’ opinions on abortions put NZ first voters as more conservative leaning, so it is unlikely to see this party leading the call for reform.
Interested in more?
Politically, Abortion change rests with NZ First so what does that look like?
Click to access Abortion-Issues-Poll-Results-January-2017.pdf
Silva et al. (2011). Improving termination of pregnancy services in New Zealand. The New Zealand Medical Journal, 124 (1339) 83-90.