Abortion law reform Bill – Expert reaction

A new Bill proposes to change the laws governing abortion in New Zealand to treat the procedure as a health issue rather than a crime.

In details released today, the law change would remove abortion from the Crimes Act and eliminate any statutory test on the health practitioner for pregnancies of under 20 weeks. It would also remove the requirement for two doctors to approve the procedure based on the woman’s physical and mental health.

The proposal will also allow women to refer themselves to an abortion service provider – bypassing their doctors if they object to refer them directly on the grounds of their conscience.

The Bill will have its first reading on Thursday. MPs will cast conscience votes at every stage of its progression through the House.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the announcement. Feel free to use these comments in your reporting. 

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

“The proposed changes to abortion laws in New Zealand are a positive step for health equity for women.  Abortion is one of the most common medical procedures performed on women, and removing it from the Crimes Act and treating it as a health issue is the right approach.

“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.”

No conflict of interest. 

Dr Jade Le Grice, (Ngāpuhi, Te Rarawa), Lecturer in the School of Psychology, University of Auckland, comments:

“Māori have long been subject to colonial policies and practices that have sought to limit our reproduction, and impose surveillance over our mothering and whānau practices. In the context of ongoing colonial and global informed cultural pressures, Māori have had to strive to resist and reclaim our cultural ways of life and the knowledge derived from that.

“Abortion is an area where Māori have been caught in the contradictions of patriarchal understandings of reproduction, resistance to colonial attempts to limit our reproduction, and our systems of knowledge that legitimise Māori women’s agency in reproductive decisions and through bodies as te whare tangata – the house of people.

“The introduced Bill offers a welcome shift from criminalising women who seek termination of a pregnancy, in contexts that can often exacerbate existing distress, to instead offer a context where they can be supported to make the best decision for their set of circumstances, and level of whānau support.

“Treating abortion as a health issue holds potential to better situate the holistic wellbeing of women as a priority, attend to their mental, spiritual, physical, and whānau wellbeing – and offer support where required in these domains. The introduced Bill also holds the potential to give greater visibility to Māori women who have specialist knowledge and/or lived experience of abortion, and who are working hard to develop and implement mātauranga Māori in this area of health.”

Conflict of interest statement: I provided advice on the Standards of Care for Women Requesting Abortion in New Zealand, for the Abortion Supervisory Committee.