Abortion a woman's moral choice, not a crime

New Zealand has experienced a great liberalisation in the last few decades, in both our formal laws, and our informal ways of living.

From the laws surrounding homosexuality, to acceptance of wearing pyjamas in supermarkets, we see an increasing sense of freedom, where the ways that people lead their lives are no-one's business but their own. We are leaving behind the conformist and dictatorial conventions of the mid-20th century.

There's one major area where the pieties of the past still constrain us. Our laws with respect to abortion were written last century, and it shows.

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has described them as convoluted, and having the effect of nullifying women's autonomy.

What is so bad about our abortion laws in any case?

Abortion in New Zealand is regulated by two acts. The first is the Crimes Act 1961. Rules about abortion sit with rules dealing with activities such as slavery, theft, and murder. That's unpleasant company to be keeping. The implication is that abortion is something that is obviously wrong, like slavery and theft and murder.

There are circumstances in which abortion is permitted, but the regulation of abortion is achieved through treating it as a crime in the first place. In 2012 in New Zealand, it's a crime for women to have authority over their own bodies.

The management of abortion is handled through the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act 1977. The act sets up a series of hurdles for a woman to leap through before she can get an abortion.

First she must see a doctor. Then she must get approval from two "certifying consultants". If she is lucky, her own doctor will be a certifying consultant, so that's only one additional doctor. However, if she is unlucky, her doctor will refuse to assist with abortions, so she must still see two extra doctors.

Even after each case has been discussed with at least two doctors, the decisions made by certifying consultants are reviewed by the Abortion Supervisory Committee. In turn, the workings of the committee are subject to parliamentary scrutiny. It is an extraordinary degree of oversight for a simple medical procedure.

So why the level of surveillance? It's because we don't trust women to make decisions for themselves. Abortion has been treated as a matter of morality, but instead of allowing the people concerned to make moral decisions, we have insisted that they get opinions from other people first.

Bizarrely, we have decided that if a person needs to get a moral signoff for a decision, then the people who are capable of giving it are medical doctors.

That might have been appropriate in the 1970s when doctors were often the most highly educated people in a community. But our levels of education have increased dramatically, and more people have the training to think through difficult decisions for themselves, and to help other people make decisions.

Make no mistake about it - abortion is a big moral issue.

People are asked to think about who and what counts, about where life begins, about the significance of lives already being lived, and lives that may or may not be lived, and about who bears the costs of prohibition.

When we deny women the right to make decisions about abortion for themselves, then we deny women's autonomy. We say that women are not capable of making moral judgments, and that they are not autonomous adults.

That's why we need to rewrite our abortion laws. But it seems that no political party has the courage to do so. When former MP Steve Chadwick proposed an Abortion Law Reform Bill, it didn't even get through the Labour caucus. She was told that the time was not right.

But we are liberalising all our other laws, and perhaps it's time to start treating women as though they are capable of making their own moral choices.

- Deborah Russell is a lecturer at Massey University.

The Dominion Post