30 Oct 2019

Abortion reform: Proposed rules for conscientious objectors are disgraceful - former PM

7:29 pm on 30 October 2019

Former Prime Minister Sir Bill English says proposed rules around doctors who conscientiously object to abortions are "abhorrent", "disgraceful" and "unfair".

Bill English

Bill English Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

The Bill, which passed its first reading and is now in front of the Select Committee, would remove abortion from the Crimes Act and the procedure would instead be treated as a health issue.

He and his wife Dr Mary English appeared before the Abortion Legislation Committee on Wednesday morning to lay out their concerns about legislation that would remove abortion from the Crimes Act.

Their submissions became slightly heated as they were challenged by Green MP Jan Logie and ACT leader David Seymour.

Sir Bill English said the legislation gave the government unprecedented permission to discriminate against its employees.

A clause in the law says healthcare workers who conscientiously object to abortions must tell a patient "how to access the list of abortion service providers".

The new law also says employers can refuse to employ, or terminate the employment of conscientious objectors if accommodating their objection "would reasonably disrupt the employer's activities".

Sir Bill said the law allowed DHBs to discriminate. But Green MP, and Justice Under-Secretary Jan Logie challenged whether that would happen in reality.

She said this was about balancing moral objections, and the ability to give women proper care. However, Sir Bill said it was not a fair balance to put the burden of ensuring access on individual health workers.

Dr Lady Mary English told Ms Logie she thought the government was being selective about when access to healthcare was important.

Dr English said many doctors were against abortion, as well as those wanting to enter the profession, but the bill would end up turning more people away.

ACT leader David Seymour pointed to a submission MPs heard on Tuesday from a woman representing those who've had late term abortions for medical reasons, and the stigma they faced.

He said the things that have been said to her don't bear repeating.

Sir Bill said he did not condone - or take any responsibility - for the terrible things said to her.

Changes to the Crimes Act in 1977 removed clauses criminalising women for abortion, and limited criminal fault to doctors or others carrying out terminations.

The major changes in the Abortion Legislation Bill are to allow a doctor to perform an abortion for a woman prior to 20 weeks without a medical test, and after 20 weeks with a medical test based on physical and mental health and well-being.

It also ensures the availability of counselling services, allows women to self-refer for an abortion, and prohibits intimidating behaviour around abortion service providers.

The select committee is continuing to hear submissions and is due to report back to the House by February next year.

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