1960s abortion law unacceptable for 21st century women of New Zealand

Our current abortion laws sit within the Crimes Act 1961 and the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977. A ...
KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS

Our current abortion laws sit within the Crimes Act 1961 and the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977. A lot has changed since these laws were written.

OPINION: ​A government report on how New Zealand has met its obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was released  last week.

CEDAW is an international treaty ratified by New Zealand in 1985. It is often called the international bill of rights for women.

The reporting process – completed every four years - provides New Zealand the opportunity to reflect on the status of women in our country and respond to recommendations made by the CEDAW Committee. In 2012, the Committee recommended that New Zealand "review the abortion law and practice with a view to simplifying it and to ensure women's autonomy to choose". 

The Committee called our abortion laws "convoluted' and said they deny women autonomy. Sadly, New Zealand has ignored this recommendation.

The prevailing attitude to date has been if it isn't broken don't fix it. But our abortion laws are broken.

Our current abortion laws sit within the Crimes Act 1961 and the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977. A lot has changed since these laws were written. Women's lives, rights and status have changed, and there has been significant medical advancement which,

under a modern legal framework, would allow abortion services to be offered in a way that focuses on the health needs of women and improves health equity. 

A number of out-of-date New Zealand laws - the Health and Safety at Work Act, Paid Parental Leave and Employment Act, and the Incorporated Societies Act - have been reviewed recently, or are currently under review, to ensure they reflect advances in thinking and practice and are fit for purpose. Obsolete abortion law should be no different.

Internationally, there is a trend toward less restrictive abortion laws reflecting the expanding rights of women to make their own decisions about whether or when to have a child, and the clear evidence that where abortion services are illegal or inaccessible, the health of women and children is severely compromised. Since 1997, 22 countries have changed their abortion laws; in nineteen of those countries, laws have become less restrictive.

In New Zealand nothing has changed. As the first country to allow women to vote, New Zealand has previously been a leader in advancing the rights of women. We are well behind now and our current abortion laws do not reflect this proud history.

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Today in New Zealand, there is unwarranted stigma and legal barriers surrounding a procedure accessed by about one out of four women. Abortion is only legal when two doctors agree it is necessary based on conditions in the Crimes Act, including if there is a serious danger to the woman's life or physical or mental health.

Nearly all women access abortion based on a perceived risk to their mental health implying that abortion is necessary because women are mentally fragile rather than because it is an important personal decision.

Rape is notably absent from our law as a reason to permit an abortion. We need to have trust and confidence in women, who are best placed to understand their own circumstances. Women are capable and competent to decide whether or not to continue with their pregnancy after conversations with a trained health professional and family and friends. There are a multitude of reasons why someone might decide to have an abortion.

Determining whether or when to have a child is a fundamental human right that should be respected and the basis of abortion law.

The provision of abortion services has changed since the 1960s and 1970s. Medical abortion is now available to women around the world from a range of health professionals – not just doctors.

Abortion laws in New Zealand do not allow our health providers and the women they care for to realise these medical advancements. Only doctors can refer for abortion services and there is limited availability of medical abortion, varying by region.

Women are required to visit a licensed health facility to have a medical abortion while the World Health Organisation, among other professional bodies, says it can be safely administered at home.

The impact of these restrictions is evident. In 2014, 70 per cent of all abortions in Switzerland were medical abortions as compared to 12 per cent in New Zealand.

To the quiet majority, abortion is a health care service like any other and should be accessed and regulated as such. In 2016, our abortion laws are a relic of the past. Abortion laws should protect and promote human rights, women's health and autonomy.

They should be flexible to ensure abortion is accessible, safe and aligned with modern medical practice.

People have the right to believe abortion is wrong and nobody should ever be forced to have an abortion against their will. Equally, the religious beliefs of some should not unnecessarily restrict access to health care.

New Zealand positions ourselves as a human rights advocate on the international stage. We take pride in our reputation as a country that is accepting, tolerant, innovative and forward-thinking. This approach should extend to all areas of our public policy and our obligations under CEDAW, including abortion.

Jackie Edmond is chief executive of Family Planning.

 - The Dominion Post

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