Abortion law reform – Expert Reaction

A briefing paper on abortion law reform has been handed to Justice Minister Andrew Little, after he commissioned the work in February.

The briefing paper outlines three options for reform – all of which include taking abortion out of the Crimes Act. The sticking point is around whether a statutory test should be required before an abortion could be performed – meaning the health practitioner performing the abortion must be satisfied the procedure is appropriate, taking into account the women’s physical and mental health.

The options are:
A: no statutory test at all: decision made by the pregnant woman in consultation with her health practitioner
B: statutory test
C: no statutory test until 22 weeks

The SMC asked an expert to take a closer look at the alternative legal models.

Associate Professor Joe Boden, Deputy Director, Christchurch Health and Development Study, University of Otago, comments:

Note: Dr Boden is speaking on behalf of the team behind the Christchurch Health and Development Study, which have followed the lives of 1265 children born in Christchurch during mid-1977. 

“Based on our research, we think this briefing paper is beginning to move in the right direction.  However, the statutory test given for Options B and C are problematic, for the following reasons.

“The statutory test requires that a physician can certify that a woman’s mental health and wellbeing will be improved (i.e. not compromised) if she is allowed to have the procedure.

“The difficulty with this is that there is currently no evidence to suggest that elective abortion improves mental health in women who are experiencing an unwanted pregnancy. There is, however, evidence of the following (from our study):

  1. Elective abortion does have an effect on life outcomes, such that it allows women to continue on their life course pathway without interruption.
  2. There is some evidence that elective abortion is a cause of mental health disorder.  However, the size of this effect is small (about a 20% increase in risk), and it is no greater than the risk posed by many other life events. Furthermore, the effect is largely confined to women who are conflicted about having the abortion, suggesting that abortion services should include a screening process in which women who report mixed feelings are provided access to counselling and support.

“These issues, of course, are a serious indictment of the rationale for the current legal status of abortion as well (because exceptions are granted on the basis of a state of affairs for which there is no evidence).  Given this, we would suggest that Option A is the best pathway forward for abortion laws.”