5 Aug 2019

Abortion law reform: Government announces Bill for 20-week medical test

5:16 pm on 5 August 2019

Abortion law would only require a medical test for women who are more than 20 weeks pregnant, in proposed changes announced by the government this morning.

Andrew Little speaks to media at parliament 30 April 2019

Justice Minister Andrew Little (file) Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

The government has released the details of a Bill which would remove abortion from the Crimes Act and instead treat it as a health issue.

It comes after months of stalling and back-and-forth negotiations between coalition partners.

Currently, the law allows for abortion to be performed only to save the life of the mother, or to preserve her physical or mental health, and only if the procedure is approved by two doctors or consultants.

Last year the Law Commission recommended three options for abortion law reform.

One option was that the decision would be for a woman and her doctor, another that a mental health assessment be carried out for all abortions, and a third would require a woman's mental health to be examined only after 22 weeks of pregnancy.

However, the government has opted for a different option, requiring an examination if a woman is more than 20 weeks pregnant.

After 20 weeks, a health practitioner would need to determine that they reasonably believe the abortion is appropriate with regard to the pregnant woman's physical and mental health, and wellbeing.

Justice Minister Andrew Little said the bill would modernise New Zealand's abortion laws, bringing them into line with many other developed countries.

"Abortion is the only medical procedure that is still a crime in New Zealand. It's time for this to change.

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

"The safe systems and regulation that we need to do this are already in place through other health legislation and codes of professional practice within the medical profession. Oversight of abortion services would be transferred from the Abortion Supervisory Committee to the Ministry of Health", Mr Little said.

Speaking to reporters, Mr Little said the final details of the bill were decided after "discussions with government parties".

"New Zealand First... has been very constructive, very positive. In fact, we've got the bill to the point that it is with the support that they've given."

The vote will be treated as a conscience issue which means MPs do not have to vote along party lines.

"I don't know precisely where the numbers sit on this, but I think the bill in the current form that it's in gives us the best chance of getting the best numbers on Thursday," Mr Little said.

The Bill, which will have its first reading on Thursday 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.
  • The Bill will be treated as a conscience issue, meaning MPs will be able to vote independently at each stage.

    Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she senses the vote results "will be close".

    "But I hope one of the considerations MPs give is the chance for the public to have their say - that will only happen if it passes at this first vote."

    More than 200 people marched to Parliament late last month calling for reform of New Zealand's abortion laws, on the day Cabinet ministers were considering the draft Bill.

    A petition posted on the Parliament website in May gained 37,856 signatures before it was presented in July asking MPs to remove abortion from the Crimes Act.

    Abortion Rights Aotearoa (ALRANZ) president Terry Bellamak hailed the announcement as "a huge step forward" but acknowledged it did not go as far as she would have wanted.

    "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. It's a good start," Ms Bellamak said in a statement.

    "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."

    Ms Bellamak questioned why there needed to be a 20 week limit at all.

    "There are scans that happen around 20 weeks, and this gives people little time to consider those results.

    "The safe areas seem to be reactive rather than proactive, because the regulations are made 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."

    But Voice for Life spokesperson Kate Cormack said the Bill was "radical" and "extremely disturbing".

    Ms Cormack said the statutory test was completely inadequate.

    "You can just see so many issues with how that would be implemented when it's being done by the abortionists themselves.

    "So you only have a woman with one point of contact if she's being coerced or is ambivalent and doesn't have the right information.

    "That is not safe that is not actually going to help women, this Bill that their proposing is counter-productive to women's health," she said.

    Ms Cormack said this Bill did not do anything to address the flaws in New Zealand's abortion system.

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