Abortion legislation has been politically neglected since the late 1970s, when the current law was introduced. But is it finally time for a rethink? The Green Party thinks so, but others are unconvinced. Shabnam Dastgheib reports.
Abortion. A heated, inflammatory, polarising topic. In a largely desensitised world, it remains one of the few issues that can still raise the hackles of the most mild-mannered of people.
Around 15,000 New Zealand women abort pregnancies each year. Many experts agree the law needs some updating to reflect current practice, but for decades abortion has been a political hot potato left untouched.
The Green Party, with a new proposal to remove abortion from the crime statutes, has reignited debate leading up to this year's election. The party says its proposal would reduce stigma and judgment surrounding the procedure, though a legal expert says the policy is too vague and will be met with strong opposition.
The Greens' reform would mean a woman seeking an abortion would not need external approval as she does now.
Anti-abortion groups, and those happy with the status quo, say the proposal would provide a system of "abortion on demand" where women could access abortion whenever they wanted - ironically this is exactly why pro-choice groups are in favour of law reform, saying abortion should be readily available to any woman who wants one, as with any other medical procedure.
But Voice for Life administrator Steve Jaunay said it was "sensationalism" for the Greens to claim abortion needed to be decriminalised.
"The law states specifically that a woman is not able to be charged but that a provider may be if the procedure is conducted outside certain legal parameters."
A woman could request an abortion on the grounds that continuing the pregnancy might place her in danger of having mental health problems, he said. "Add to this the fact that having an abortion increases the risk of mental health problems, and you have the awful irony of the situation. A young woman would be encouraged by our culture to get rid of the ‘problem', and ends up with a worse problem.
"The groups that are trying to promote a further relaxing of laws surrounding abortion refuse to look at or believe any research that might indicate that abortion could be dangerous to a woman," Jaunay said.
One of those groups, the Abortion Law Reform Association, says it is not right that New Zealand still classes abortion under the Crimes Act. National president Morgan Healey said this created stigma, when abortion needed to be treated as a health issue. "Women are not trusted to make the decision for themselves which creates barriers."
Delays created by the current restrictions meant abortions were not conducted as early as they should be, causing unnecessary health risks, Healey said. "There should be no grounds needed for an abortion. A woman makes the decision herself and goes to her own doctor and is offered counselling, if that's what she wants, and then she has the abortion."
Prime Minister John Key has said he is in favour of women having the right to choose but he thought the current system was fine. The Greens disagree, saying their policy would make the law more honest, thereby making the practice safer and fairer.
University of Otago professor of law Nicola Peart said the Greens would struggle with their proposal in the current climate. "The legislation probably does need to be revisited but this legislation has not been touched for good reason. It's a very high risk policy to take on."
She said the proposed changes would make a major difference to the process around abortion but the policy as it had been put forward was "kind of vague".
Peart said trying to make changes to abortion law after 20 weeks gestation, when a child could technically be born and live a normal life was going to be hugely controversial. "You're moving into the area where you're going to encounter an enormous amount of opposition to that."
ONE WOMAN'S STORY
It took almost a month from the time one woman made the decision to abort her pregnancy to the day she underwent the procedure.
Along the way she needed to obtain a referral from her own doctor and certificates from two other doctors declaring her mentally unfit. She had two ultrasounds, an appointment for a blood test, a half-day examination and run-through of what would happen on the day and then another half day for the actual abortion.
"I was really confused about why it was all so necessary to make me say the words again and again and again. Declaring myself mentally unfit to two different strangers was incredibly difficult."
She found the process emotionally taxing, punctuated with moments of panic that she may not get approval.
The woman had a surgical abortion last year, where the cervix is stretched and the contents of the uterus suctioned out under local anaesthetic. "The very act of removing an embryo is so against what being a woman is - there's not a woman who would take this lightly. No matter how young or inexperienced, this is not the morning-after pill, it is such a hugely loaded thing. Anyone who knows anything about it wouldn't want to go near it if they didn't have to."
The 30-year-old became pregnant following a one-off night with her ex-boyfriend. The morning-after pill hadn't worked. "The reality of it is we don't have one form of contraception that is 100 per cent so this needs to be an option."
On the day of her abortion, she was asked to wait in a tiny clinic space with eight or so other women before being ushered into a room lined with beds separated by curtains. She could hear others going into the adjoining abortion room and then coming out before it was her turn. "The actual abortion is done very quickly and they were very responsive when I was upset, which was really good. There was a bit of pain but it was a numb pain. They offered me lollies and a cup of tea afterwards."
Her abortion was free of complications, and she was lucky to be backed by a supportive family and an employer who granted her a lot of leave to work through the process. "I think it can be done in a more humane way and not to have a very fragile, already physically unwell, really sick woman go through this horrible process if she has made the choice.
"Any woman who chooses to have an abortion does not think she has a life that can support bringing up a healthy, cared for child. Surely that's the crux of it. Financially I was in no position to begin to care for a child, I couldn't even afford a private abortion."
Her abortion was publicly funded as opposed to the $1000 cost of a private abortion. She believed resources could be better spent on counselling or guidance services than funding the current hoops women had to jump through.
AS THE LAW STANDS
Grounds for an abortion come under the Crimes Act.
Rape is not considered grounds but may be taken into account
Abortion is legal if two consultants agree the pregnancy would seriously harm the woman's physical or mental health, or there is a substantial risk the child would be born seriously disabled
A woman needs a referral from her doctor, as well as blood tests and ultrasounds
An operating surgeon needs to be willing
Two certifying consultants need to agree; one must have experience in obstetrics Abortions after 12 weeks must be carried out at a licensed hospital
After 20 weeks abortion can only be performed if there is threat to the mother's life or risk of permanent injury
There is no legal age limit for seeking or having an abortion.
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