Abortion law 'offensive' says chair of committee charged with governing it video

Prime Minister Bill English is firm on his stance, that he does not want any law change that might liberalise abortions.
CAMERON BURNELL/ FAIRFAX NZ

Prime Minister Bill English is firm on his stance, that he does not want any law change that might liberalise abortions.

Parts of the law governing abortions in New Zealand are "offensive" and outdated, the chair of the Abortions Supervisory Committee has told lawmakers. 

The forty-year-old statute, which sits under the Crimes Act, was also opening up the committee to lengthy legal challenges by anti-abortion groups using semantics to chip away at its authority. 

Committee chair Dame Linda Holloway told MPs on Parliament's Justice and Electoral Select Committee that a re-drafting of the law was needed, but she stopped short of requesting a fundamental overhaul. 

Chair of the Abortion Supervisory Committee Dame Linda Holloway, addresses the Justice and Electoral Committee over ...
STACEY KIRK/FAIRFAX NZ

Chair of the Abortion Supervisory Committee Dame Linda Holloway, addresses the Justice and Electoral Committee over outdated and outmoded legislation that it has to work within.

"For us, operating as a committee, things that may seem quite small - just little issues of semantics - can cause enormous administrative problems for us, for officials and those practising in the field, to make sure that they and that we are sure they're operating within the law." 

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When the law was enacted in the 1970s it was reflective of the health system at the time, and also societal views of mental health.

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"It wasn't written in inclusive language. 

"In fact, some parts of the language is actually quite offensive, referring to people [with limited mental capacity] as subnormal, for example. And really, it's an indictment that we've got a statute like that on the books, that's not been corrected," Holloway said. 

But medical practise had also changed over forty years.

"And we have legislation that refers repeatedly to the operating doctor. 

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"Well now, one of the ways of performing abortions are medically-induced abortions - there is no operating doctor. Again that can cause lots of challenges and hassle."

Legal counsel to the supervisory committee Wendy Aldred said the committee had been involved in litigation steadily - save for an 18-month gap - since 2004.

An anti-abortion group in 2015 sought litigation over whether the committee could issue an abortion license limited to medical abortions only, when the legislation solely referred to surgical abortions. 

"The door has been opened to some extent, to those kinds of challenges, which have tied the committee's time and resource," Aldred said.  

The court found in favour of the supervisory committee, accepting the law did not reflect medical advancements made since the 1970s. 

"But it might be we weren't there in the first place if there weren't unhelpful terms like operating surgeon and apparent semantic emphasis on surgical and operating facilities." 

Outside the select committee, Holloway said the fact abortion was always a controversial issue could present challenges to getting even minor changes to the legislation. 

But the supervisory committee was only seeking a modernisation of the legislation, that would reflect the current medical settings. 

Calls for wider legislation changes, particularly to remove abortion from the Crimes Act and put it under health legislation were not within the gambit of the supervisory committee. 

On that, Prime Minister Bill English said it was his view the laws did not need to change, but a private members bill could propose a legislation change. 

That would likely result in a conscience vote, where MPs could vote individually. 

"I just haven't seen any particular proposal that wouldn't do anything other than liberalise it and I, personally, am opposed to that." 

English said he did not believe his views would colour the way his MPs would vote, in such circumstances. 

"They've got their own consciences and they would vote accordingly. 

"We're not a party who applies collective pressure on conscience issues, some of the other parties do."

 - Stuff

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