Editorial: Is it time to update New Zealand's abortion law?

Wellington High School students protesting outside Wellington Hospital in support of women wishing to have abortions in 2014.
KEVIN STENT/FAIRFAX NZ

Wellington High School students protesting outside Wellington Hospital in support of women wishing to have abortions in 2014.

EDITORIAL: Abortion law in New Zealand seems to be one of those areas where Government thinking is observably out of step with public opinion. Recent polling by Curia, carried out for the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand, found majority public support for the legality of abortions in a range of situations. Support was as high as 77 per cent if a pregnant woman was likely to die without an abortion, down to 54 per cent if the woman cannot afford another child and 51 per cent if she simply does not want to be a mother.

These numbers reveal the existing law is archaic and farcical, and that most agree that abortion should be considered a health issue not a criminal one. Abortion is covered by laws that have not been updated for 40 years. They say that two consultants need to agree that the woman's mental or physical health is at risk or the baby would be seriously disabled before an abortion can be approved.

In most cases, it is merely a rubber-stamping exercise. Of the 13,000 abortions that were performed in New Zealand in 2015, nearly all were approved on mental health grounds (in 2014, that covered 97 per cent of abortions). Does anyone believe that more than 12,000 New Zealand women risked severe mental health outcomes if their pregnancies went full-term? 

Bill English and Paula Bennett hold different views on abortion, but his view will prevail for the time being.
CAMDERON BURNELL/FAIRFAX NZ

Bill English and Paula Bennett hold different views on abortion, but his view will prevail for the time being.

That said, abortions are sometimes declined. It was reported that 252 "not justified abortion" certificates were issued in 2016. It is a reminder that while our system appears to operate as abortion on demand as long as doctors agree to bend the rules, they still have the authority to deny abortions without giving reasons. 

The fact that one in four New Zealand women have had an abortion suggests it has become mainstream, though it is a difficult personal decision that is rarely taken lightly and often at times of considerable distress. Some noted that even the language of the law reflects earlier, less enlightened times. Doctors are routinely referred to as "he" and the abhorrent term "subnormal" is used in a mental health context. This is what Abortions Supervisory Committee chair Dame Linda Holloway meant when she told Parliament last week that parts of the law seem "offensive" to us now. It also uses outdated medical terminology.

The committee's appearance before the Justice and Electoral Select Committee put the otherwise dormant issue of abortion law under the spotlight. It made it political. For Opposition, there is the happy coincidence of having a conservative Catholic Prime Minister, Bill English, who refuses to back liberalisation and a Deputy Prime Minister and Women's Affairs Minister, Paula Bennett, who has said she is "pro-choice" but is toeing the party line this time.

Act leader David Seymour identified that the current law is a "charade" from his party's liberal perspective. But it is a charade we will keep playing for the time being. Despite such pressure, there is little political will for change and it is unlikely English and Bennett will be embarrassed into reversing their public positions on what remains a private and morally subjective area.

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 - Stuff

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