Abortion law reform: What you need to know

2:13 pm on 8 August 2019

Social issues reporter Sarah Robson looks at the major changes and the facts under debate in the reform of abortion laws.

Abortion rally in Auckland

Demonstrators from both sides of the debate at a recent rally in Auckland. Photo: RNZ / Joanna MacKenzie

How does the abortion law work at the moment?

Abortion is covered by two laws - the Crimes Act 1961 and the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977 - and is administered by the Ministry of Justice.

As it stands, abortion is a criminal offence. The law, however, outlines a number of grounds for legal abortion.

Abortions must be authorised by two certifying consultants.

  • Under 20 weeks' gestation, the grounds for an abortion are: serious danger to life, physical health or mental health; any form of incest or sexual relations with a guardian; mental sub-normality; foetal abnormality.
  • The grounds after 20 weeks are stricter: to save the life of the mother; to prevent serious permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the mother.
  • Age and sexual violation are not grounds for an abortion, but can be taken into account.
  • About 98 to 99 percent of abortions are performed on the grounds of serious danger to mental health.

What does the government's bill change?

Abortion will be removed from the Crimes Act and be provided like any other health service.

The current grounds for authorising an abortion will be repealed.

  • Up to 20 weeks gestation, people will be able to get an abortion if they ask for one. Their doctor would only need to make sure they are making an informed choice and give informed consent, like any other health service.
  • After 20 weeks, a doctor will need to sign off an abortion, to make sure it is appropriate with regard to the person's physical and mental health, and wellbeing.

How will people get an abortion under the new law?

People will be able to go straight to an abortion service provider if they want an abortion.

That means they will not have to go to a doctor first to get a referral.

That should remove some of the delay and cost barriers for people accessing abortions, the bill says.

At the moment, abortion services can be difficult for some people to access, depending on where they live - some need to travel.

What about counselling?

The current law is silent on abortion counselling, but some district health boards require this before having an abortion.

The government's changes will mean doctors will have to tell people about the availability of counselling services if they are thinking about an abortion or have had an abortion. However, counselling will not be mandatory.

What if doctors don't agree with abortion?

At the moment, doctors who object to providing abortion services have a duty to inform the pregnant person about their views.

Objecting doctors must tell women they can obtain the service elsewhere, but are not required to refer them to another doctor.

The government's bill will mean doctors will have to inform people of their objection at the earliest opportunity.

They will also be required to tell people how they can access the contact details of an abortion service provider.

How many abortions are performed in New Zealand?

According to Stats NZ, almost 13,300 abortions were performed last year - similar to the year before.

In 2008, the abortion rate was 19.7 abortions person 1000 women aged 15 to 44. In 2018, the rate was 13.5.

It is estimated one in four New Zealand women will have an abortion in their lifetime.

There has been a lot of talk about late term abortions - how many occur each year?

According to Stats NZ, there were 99 abortions performed at 20 weeks gestation or over in 2017 - fewer than one percent of all abortions performed that year.

There are strict grounds for getting an abortion after 20 weeks.

Under the government's new law, there will still be a legal test for abortions after 20 weeks and people will need to get approval from a doctor.

There's a vote happening in parliament today - what's that about?

The Abortion Legislation Bill is having its first reading in parliament today.

This will be the first chance for MPs to debate and vote on it.

It will be treated as a conscience issue - that means MPs won't have to vote along party lines, so two MPs from the same party could vote differently.

If the bill passes its first reading, it will be referred to a special select committee for consideration. That select committee will report back to parliament after receiving submissions from the public.

The bill would then need to pass its second reading. It will then be debated by a committee of the whole House before a third and final reading.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs