It’s Time to Decriminalize Abortion Care in New Zealand (Updated)

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's government has introduced a bill to reform the country's outdated abortion law.

[Photo: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks during an event.]
Ministers from both major parties say they recognize change is necessary for gender equality and note that people have always sought abortions, but the difference is now we actually talk about it. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern describes abortion as a health service just like any other. Hagen Hopkins / Getty Images

UPDATE, March 18, 2020, 5:19 p.m.: New Zealand lawmakers passed legislation decriminalizing abortion care, the Guardian reported.

Abortion in New Zealand has been considered a crime, outside narrow circumstances, for more than 40 years. But the tide is turning against the criminalization of reproductive health care for the 4.8 million people in the country.

Minister for Justice Andrew Little this month announced legislation to remove abortion from the nation’s Crimes Act, an antiquated law that restricts abortion before 20 weeks into a pregnancy and permits the health service only in cases of life endangerment, serious danger to the pregnant person’s physical or mental health, a fetal anomaly, or incest. The new legislation will allow abortions in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy without requiring prior permission or authorization, as is the case under the current law. Given the advances in medical technology and public attitudes toward reproductive health, progress in reforming abortion policy has been a long time coming and is welcomed by many in New Zealand.

Current law in New Zealand, passed in 1977, states that a person seeking abortion care must first receive authorization from two medical practitioners who certify that giving birth would cause danger to the pregnant person in one of the ways listed in the Crimes Act. Other factors like rape and age can be taken into consideration by the certifying doctors, but are not in themselves grounds to approve an abortion. After 20 weeks of pregnancy, the rules are even more restrictive: Doctors can only approve abortion on the grounds of saving the pregnant person’s life or preventing permanent injury. Without meeting this criteria, anyone who provides abortion care or undergoes a self-managed abortion is committing a crime under the 1961 Crimes Act.

This policy disempowers and disadvantages women in many ways. The grounds required for accessing an abortion in New Zealand ignore the socio-economic and personal factors that can play a huge role in a pregnant person’s decision. In maintaining this criteria, legislators are ignoring women’s fundamental human rights according to key international treaties, including CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women), particularly in the way the law disregards sexual violence and rape as valid grounds for abortion. Put simply, this is an impediment to women’s ability to make decisions.

Under the proposed bill, people who are more than 20 weeks pregnant will be able to have an abortion as long as the doctor providing the procedure believes it’s “appropriate with regard to the pregnant woman’s physical and mental health, and well-being.” And within the first 20 weeks, pregnant people will be able to refer themselves to an abortion provider without needing the authorization of two medical professionals. This is a significant change: People will be able to access abortion earlier by skipping the time-intensive process of finding two medical practitioners to sign off on it. The time delay can make getting an abortion on the grounds of fetal abnormality an issue, because diagnosis often cannot be made until after 20 weeks have passed.

The bill would also allow the government to create “safe areas” around abortion clinics where protesting and harassment would be banned.

Of course, the proposed changes have been met with some debate. Critics of the bill like March for Life NZ say it is “anti-human rights,” using the so-called personhood argument that a fetus should be given the rights of a person. Anti-abortion activists argue that the government has failed to include safeguards for young people who may be seeking abortion because of coercion from partners or family members. And they argue that there is no need for reform because pregnant people can already access abortion up to 20 weeks if they receive doctors’ authorizations.

Despite its critics, the bill has cross-party political support. Ministers from both major parties say they recognize change is necessary for gender equality and note that people have always sought abortions, but the difference is now we actually talk about it. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern describes abortion as a health service just like any other.

The bill passed its first reading in early August, and now the National Council of Women New Zealand is working with our members to respond to the bill. Any New Zealander can make a submission to the select committee on the abortion legislation before the bill goes to a second reading and then to a committee of the whole house. If it passes, it will go to a third reading before being given royal assent to be translated into law.

Submissions are open until September 19, which coincides with New Zealand’s Suffrage Day, celebrating 126 years since women were given the vote.

The sweeping support the bill decriminalizing abortion has received means its eventual passage is likely. The Gender Attitudes Survey in 2017—commissioned by the organization I lead, the National Council of Women New Zealand—showed that at least 66 percent of New Zealanders believe women should have the right to choose. A 2018 resolution by members of the National Council of Women New Zealand in support of abortion law reform passed with 80 percent support. This is undoubtedly a positive indication of how the New Zealand public feels about abortion rights.