Alter abortion law to reflect real grounds - call

20:55, Apr 17 2013

New Zealand's abortion laws should be changed to reflect the real reasons women decide to terminate unwanted pregnancies, Christchurch researchers say.

New research from the University of Otago, Christchurch, suggests abortion does not reduce the mental health risks of unwanted pregnancy.

Currently, abortion can only be performed legally in New Zealand if there is a risk to the mother's physical or mental health or if the baby would have a serious disability.

About 98 per cent of abortions are performed on mental health grounds.

The research, published in the latest Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, analysed recent reviews into mental health following abortion and found there was no direct evidence showing women who had an abortion were at lower risk of mental health problems than those who gave birth after having an unwanted or unplanned pregnancy.

It found a range of other factors associated with unwanted pregnancy though, including education, family finances, the needs of other children and relationships.

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"These conclusions have important, if uncomfortable, implications for clinical practice and the interpretation of the law," the review stated.

"The history of abortion law and law reforms shows that this is likely to resurrect politically uncomfortable and socially divisive debates about access to legal abortion."

The researchers suggested the "highly controversial nature" of the issue was probably the reason for the lack of discussion on the mental health benefits of abortion, but the "growing evidence ... cannot be ignored indefinitely".

"It is unacceptable for clinicians to authorise large numbers of abortions on grounds for which there is, currently, no scientific evidence," they wrote.

Lead researcher David Fergusson told The Press the review did not suggest abortion should be completely illegal but that the current laws should be changed to reflect the real reasons women sought abortions.

"These issues could be addressed if the wording of the current law was changed from 'continuation of the pregnancy would pose a serious threat to the woman's health' to something along the lines that 'continuation of the pregnancy would pose a serious threat to the woman's physical, mental, educational, family or financial wellbeing'," he said.

Abortion Law Reform Association New Zealand president Morgan Healey said women were already required to go through "so many hoops" before they could access abortion services.

"We think that's a barrier to accessing services and I'm not sure putting in a few additional grounds would make any difference but we do think that the paper makes a good case for completely decriminalising abortion."

However, Family First director Bob McCoskrie said the paper showed abortion was harmful and any attempts to "liberalise" the country's abortion laws would do women more harm than good.

ABORTION IN NZ

- 15,863 abortions were performed in New Zealand in 2011.

- The general abortion rate was 17.3 abortions per 1000 women aged 15 to 44.

- The median age of women having an abortion was 25.

- 62 per cent were a woman's first abortion.

- 55 per cent were performed before the 10th week of pregnancy.

Source: Statistics NZ

The Press