Is it time for laws around abortion to change? New Zealanders certainly think so.
A study recently published in the New Zealand Medical Journal reveals the majority of New Zealanders not only support legalised abortion when a woman’s life is endangered, but also support legalised abortion regardless of the reason.
Despite these high levels of support across the country, legislation has yet to catch up.
Although recent high-profile changes to state laws across the US have increased restrictions to women’s reproductive healthcare including access to safe abortions, global trends are pushing in the opposite direction.
The most notable shift was in the Republic of Ireland that once had the most restrictive abortion laws among Western nations. However, in 2018, 66.4 percent of voters approved a referendum to amend the constitution and legalise abortion, and now the laws have been changed. Law reform in Aotearoa, however, will be different. Rather than a public vote via referendum, there will be a conscience vote in Parliament. So how do the results in Ireland relate to Aotearoa?
Although the issue will not be voted upon by the public, support for legalising abortion in Aotearoa is comparable to the outcome of the referendum in Ireland. Data from the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study collected in 2017/2018 shows 67.5 percent of New Zealanders support legalised abortion. Similar results emerged from a recent Newshub poll, which indicated 69.9 percent of respondents believed abortion should be decriminalised. These numbers are remarkably similar to the 66.4 percent of voters who supported decriminalisation in Ireland just last year.
What these statistics also tell us is that the pendulum has tipped in recent years, with New Zealanders becoming increasingly supportive of legislation that decriminalises abortion and improves women’s access to reproductive healthcare.
If Aotearoa were to decriminalise, we would join the majority of nations across the globe that have changed their reproductive healthcare laws to improve access to abortion in recent years. Indeed, Ireland is not the only country to expand their laws. According to research organisation, the Guttmacher Institute, the majority of countries that have changed legalisation in recent years have expanded, rather than restricted, women’s access to abortion.
Why is it important that we follow this trend and change the law here? There are a number of factors unique to Aotearoa that call for improved reproductive healthcare for women. These include our high rates of domestic violence and the need we have to provide better access to reproductive health services, end the stigma associated with abortions and empower women’s reproductive rights in general.
About half of all pregnancies are unplanned, and, according to Statistics New Zealand, about a fifth of all pregnancies end in an abortion. In other words, abortion is not uncommon, nor is it dangerous. However, it is still a critical aspect of women’s reproductive healthcare. Indeed, the World Health Organisation notes that access to safe abortion services is a key component to protecting women’s health and human rights.
However, for women in Aotearoa there are numerous barriers to this access. These include a lack of facilities nationwide, delays in accessing a medical professional to perform the procedure in a timely fashion, and lack of support and knowledge for navigating the reproductive healthcare landscape. All of these restrictions demonstrate that there is insufficient empowerment of women’s reproductive autonomy in Aotearoa.
Our abortion laws have also been criticised and described as a form of gender discrimination by the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. So although Aotearoa has been consistently recognised as a global leader for gender equality, the lack of easy access to comprehensive reproductive healthcare for women holds us back relative to our more egalitarian counterparts across the globe.
Finally, it is important to acknowledge how real and tangible this issue is for many people for whom abortion is an important and necessary means of maintaining reproductive autonomy.
A multitude of personal stories, presented publicly, of people’s experiences seeking an abortion in Aotearoa have proliferated the media in recent times. These narratives highlight the physical obstacles, societal stigma, and interpersonal shame that women who seek an abortion still experience. To maintain abortion under the Crimes Act only furthers these tangible barriers. Fortunately, the majority of New Zealanders support righting this wrong.