The Government has announced its plans for abortion law reform, but has stopped short of its most liberal option. 

Abortion will no longer be illegal in New Zealand but there will still be a test for late-term abortions beyond 20 weeks, Justice Minister Andrew Little has revealed.

Little announced the Government’s plans for long-awaited abortion law reform on Monday. While it was not the most liberal option under consideration, it would mark a significant step forward, bringing New Zealand in line with other developed countries.

The debate about abortion law reform was raised during the debates in the lead-up to the 2017 election, when Jacinda Ardern committed to removing abortion from the Crimes Act and instead dealing with the decision and procedure as a health issue.

The Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act of 1977 allows a woman to have an abortion if she meets certain criteria and proves her need to two physicians. In practice, this means women have to convince two doctors the birth of the child would put them in physical or mental danger. It often means women are forced to lie about their mental state.

Soon after coming into Government, Little asked the Law Commission to come up with proposals for reforming the law, and in October it reported back with three options.

All three models would remove it from the Crimes Act, but they differed in what the new model would entail.

“Abortion is the only medical procedure that is still a crime in New Zealand. It’s time for this to change.”

Model A was to remove all specific abortion regulations and treat abortion like all other health services. This meant there would not be a test and the woman and her doctor would decide.

Model B would require women to pass a statutory test before being allowed an abortion. She would need to prove to the physician the “the abortion is appropriate in the circumstances, having regard to the woman’s physical and mental health and wellbeing”.

The third option, model C, was a compromise, and would require that test be passed for abortions after 22 weeks.

Little has gone with a more conservative version of option C, requiring the statutory test be applied after 20 weeks. Before 20 weeks, no test would be required.

The new law also requires health practitioners to advise women of the availability of counselling services if they were considering an abortion or have had an abortion. However, counselling would not be mandatory.

Women would be able to self-refer to an abortion service provider, rather than requiring a referral from a medical professional. There would also now be the power for the state to set up safe areas around specific abortion facilities, on a case by case basis.

And those doctors who were conscientious objectors and did not want to provide services would be required by law to inform the pregnant women about their objections, and let them know they could get services elsewhere.

“A woman has the right to choose what happens to her body.”

Some criminal offences would remain, including for unqualified people who attempted to perform or supply the means for an abortion.

And it would be a criminal offence to kill an unborn child, or cause harm to a pregnant woman and in doing so killing a fetus.

“Abortion is the only medical procedure that is still a crime in New Zealand. It’s time for this to change,” Little said.

Safe abortion should be treated and regulated as a health issue, he said.

“A woman has the right to choose what happens to her body.”

In 2018, 13,282 abortions were performed in New Zealand – only 57 of those took place after 20 weeks, and six percent after 14 weeks.

Women in their 20s are most likely to get abortions, while the number of abortions accessed by those under 20 is decreasing and those aged 30 and over are now more likely to access an abortion.

Comparatively, New Zealand has a lower rate of early abortions than other countries, however, this is changing.

About one in every five pregnancies end in abortion, according to Stats NZ data. The country’s general abortion rate for those aged 15 to 44 was 13.5 in 2018 – the same as the United States.

“Finally. We’ve only been waiting forty-odd years.”

Abortion Law Reform Association president Terry Bellamak said the Government’s proposed law change was not as good as it could have been, but it was much better than the status quo.

“Finally. We’ve only been waiting forty-odd years.”

The good parts were full decriminalisation; the ability to self-refer to an abortion service and bypass GPs; no special licence required over and above what other health clinics need; and qualified health practitioners who were not doctors could provide the service.

However, Bellamak questioned the 20-week limit.

Little said the government wanted to improve access to services, and support the best health and wellbeing outcomes for women. Safe systems and regulations were already in place through other health legislation and codes of professional practice within the medical profession.

Oversight of abortion services would be transferred from the Abortion Supervisory Committee to the Ministry of Health.

The bill will have its first reading in Parliament on Thursday.

The Government would propose Parliament establishes a special select committee to hear the public’s views on the bill.

This piece of legislation would be treated as a conscience issue, allowing MPs to vote individually rather than along party lines.

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