Seeking an abortion was a crime until now, but new legislation has removed the stigma and given women a choice
Thu 19 Mar 2020 23.56 GMTLast modified on Fri 20 Mar 2020 13.03 GMT
New Zealand’s current abortion laws are more than 40 years old and were enacted when there were more MPs in Parliament named Bill than MPs who were female. This week we brought the laws into the 21st century.
Up to now, women seeking an abortion in New Zealand were committing a crime under our main criminal statute but had a defence if they followed the requirements of the abortion legislation. These requirements included the woman being referred by their doctor to two specialists who each had to certify she faces a serious danger to her life or physical or mental health. Other conditions also applied, such as whether the pregnancy was a result of incest or the woman lacked capacity to consent. For abortions after 20 weeks, conditions were more stringent.
These laws were designed to be very restrictive. Presently, with more than 13,000 abortions a year (out of a population of about five million), it is clear the effect of the law has been to force women and the health practitioners they consult to lie about mental health status. And all along, women seeking an abortion carry the stigma of committing, for the purposes of New Zealand law, a criminal act.
New Zealand has long been regarded as a country in the vanguard of women’s rights and the status of women. We gave women the right to vote in 1893. We have our third female prime minister. Not for the first time, the top constitutional roles of governor general and chief justice are held by women. Three of the biggest government departments (treasury, inland revenue and economic development) are headed by women.
But our abortion laws were from a different time.
To achieve change Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and I asked our law commission to advise on shifting our abortion law from its criminal framework to a health one.
The commission looked at other jurisdictions and recommended three options, including one that had no gestational threshold at which a restrictive test would apply.
The government, a coalition of a Labour party, a centrist party and a Green party, settled on a law that would remove the criminal status of abortion, ensure a decision up to 20 weeks of pregnancy is solely one for a woman and her medical practitioner, and make a decision after 20 weeks subject to tests involving the woman’s health and wellbeing, the gestational age of the foetus and whether it is clinically appropriate.
The law change was declared a conscience issue for members of parliament and they were free to vote according to their view, not the party whip.
Support for the change, and opposition to it, came from all sides. Members, both men and women, of the main conservative party, the National party, spoke in favour of progressive change.
Arguments opposing the change were arguments against abortion per se. The old canards of “full term abortion” and “unborn children” were trotted out.
As a measure of how much public sentiment has changed on an issue that has usually been polarising, the public debate has been somewhat muted. There were a few demonstration on both sides of the argument but they were generally modest.
It is clear most New Zealanders see a woman’s decision about abortion as one for her.
We’ve moved on from an age when law-making and decisions were dominated by men’s perspectives and an innate distrust of women making decisions on their own health and ethical grounds.
Our new abortion law is not in the vanguard, but it is principled and truly reflects New Zealand in the 21st century.
Andrew Little is New Zealand’s minister of justice