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Abortion to be removed from Crimes Act

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Abortion law to be modernised in line with other countries, meaning New Zealand women won't have to jump through hoops to end a pregnancy.

Abortion will no longer be considered a crime, no compulsory medical test will be required for women who are less than 20 weeks' pregnant and safe spaces around clinics where abortions are performed could be created.

Women could also go straight to an abortion provider without needing a GP's referral. 

A bill to remove abortion from the Crimes Act will have its first reading on Thursday 8 August, Justice Minister Andrew Little has announced.

Currently, abortion is only legal if two certifying consultants (doctors) agree that continuing the pregnancy would result in serious danger to a woman’s mental or physical health.

Abortion law will be modernised so it is treated as a health issue rather than a crime, said Little.

“Safe abortion should be treated and regulated as a health issue; a woman has the right to choose what happens to her body."

The bill will:

  • remove any statutory test on the health practitioner for a woman who is not more than 20 weeks pregnant
  • for a woman who is more than 20 weeks pregnant, require the health practitioner to reasonably believe the abortion is appropriate with regard to the pregnant woman’s physical and mental health, and well-being.
  • ensure that health practitioners advise women of the availability of counselling services if they are considering an abortion or have had an abortion, although counselling will not be mandatory
  • ensure that a woman can self-refer to an abortion service provider
  • enable a regulation-making power to set up safe areas around specific abortion facilities, on a case-by-case basis
  • ensure that practitioners who object to providing services on the grounds of conscience must inform the pregnant women about their objection, and that the woman can obtain the services elsewhere
  • retain the criminal offence for unqualified people who attempt to procure an abortion on a pregnant woman or supply the means for procuring an abortion
  • retain the criminal offence of killing an unborn child for any person who causes harm to a pregnant woman and in doing so causes the death of a fetus

Terry Bellamak, president of the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand (ALRANZ) said in a press release they welcomed the announcement and it was a "good start".

"The bill is a mixed bag. It’s not as good as it could have been, but it’s so much better than the status quo, we have to give the Government props for that."

“The good parts: 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; qualified health practitioners who are not doctors can provide the service.

“But why the 20-week limit? There are scans that happen around 20 weeks, and this gives people little time to consider those results.

A small proportion of abortions take place after 20 weeks – there were 13,282 abortions performed last year, according to Statistics New Zealand, and 57 of those took place after 20 weeks' pregnancy.

Bellamak also said creating safe areas around abortion provider clinics was reactive rather than proactive because it would be done on a case-by-case basis.

“Does this mean providers and patients must suffer actual harassment, intimidation, or injury before they can apply to the Minister for a safe area? That might put health practitioners off providing abortion care."

However, the reforms are a huge step forward overall, she said.

Watch: Jacinda Ardern's stance on abortion being removed from Crimes Act (2017)

The proposed changes are a positive step for health equity for women, said Dr Joe Boden, Associate Professor and Deputy Director, Christchurch Health and Development Study, University of Otago Christchurch.

“We are somewhat disappointed, however, that the government has continued to use ‘mental health’ as grounds for allowing an abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. As we have written on numerous occasions, there is no evidence to suggest that elective abortion improves mental health, whereas there is considerable evidence that elective abortion can improve other aspects of women’s wellbeing. That is the reason why we have previously recommended that the phrase ‘health and wellbeing’ be used as a more scientifically accurate alternative.”

Anti-abortion group Voice for Life called the law reforms extreme and spokesperson Kate Cormack said there was no mandate for the change.

"What Jacinda Ardern and the Labour Government is attempting to do here is truly astounding when you consider they have no public mandate. This is simply wish fulfilment for a tiny minority of very vocal abortion ideologues, and it will waste valuable Parliamentary time and resources that should be spent on more pressing issues.”

Findings from a survey of 20,000 Kiwis, published in the NZ Medical Journal in June, found "moderate to high support" for legalised abortion regardless of the reason for seeking one.

The reforms will be treated as a conscience issue, meaning Members of Parliament can cast their votes independently at each stage of the Bill’s progression through the House.

A Select Committee will be established to hear the public's views.

Read more: Mother-to-be denied abortion: 'I guess I feel very wronged'The Pill in New Zealand: Freedom – and denial