Government

Abortion reform debate has just begun

Analysis: The journey has begun for another piece of contentious legislation. This time, hopefully, Parliamentary procedures will not fail those who need this the most.

After 42 years, the Government has introduced a bill to modernise and liberalise abortion law.

This is a good news/bad news story for those advocating for reform since Jacinda Ardern promised a change during a pre-election debate in 2017.

For many who support a women’s right to choose, they hoped the Government would go further and remove all tests for women seeking abortion – consistent with Model A put forward by the Law Commission last year.

The commission said health practitioners and professional bodies it consulted were almost unanimous in supporting the removal of all tests for all women seeking abortions.

"They considered it would be most consistent with a health approach, because it would make abortion a matter between a woman and her health practitioner—like other health services. A number of other submitters also felt that abortion should be a private matter between a woman and her health practitioner,” the report said.

Instead, the coalition has opted for a more restrictive version of Model C: a statutory test for women seeking an abortion after 20 weeks.

It’s a significant step forward, and finally includes removing abortion from the Crimes Act.

But the compromised path taken by the Government shows the politicking has already begun.

Justice Minister Andrew Little did not explicitly say the decision to go with the 20-week restriction was a concession to New Zealand First, but he may as well have.

Instead he spoke about the bill being the result of “negotiations with Government partners”. He said the discussions were positive, but again, it seemed clear the result was all about gaining consensus from more conservative Cabinet colleagues.

Little’s preference had always been Option C proposed by the Law Commission, and this was a modified Option C.

“The bill in the current form that it’s in gives us the best chance of getting the highest possible numbers from the rest of the House,” he said on Monday. Ardern made a similar statement at her weekly post-cabinet press conference.

"I made a pledge during the election that I would bring this issue to Parliament and we are doing that, and this is the furthest this issue has gone since the 1907s. And now it is in the hands of individual members of Parliament," she said.

"I think this option has the greatest chance of succeeding in Parliament," she said, adding that she urged MPs to support the bill through first reading in order to give Kiwis the chance to have their say.

This is just a taste of the politics to come.

Those on both sides of the debate have strongly held beliefs and are passionate, meaning MPs have to work hard to sort fact from fiction. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

This bill was introduced to the House on Monday and is up for its first reading on Thursday.

It will be treated as a conscience issue, meaning each MP is able to vote according to their individual moral beliefs, however, different parties are able to take different approaches to how they treat conscience votes.

All Green MPs will vote in favour of the bill, and Labour and National MPs will vote individually based on conscience rather than as a party block. New Zealand First will make a decision on whether to vote together or individually during Tuesday’s caucus meeting, with female MPs Tracey Martin and Jenny Marcroft pushing for the party to vote in favour of change. And ACT’s David Seymour will support the bill.

Meanwhile, those on both sides will be lobbying hard.

Conscience votes are always messy. Not just when it comes time to voting time, but in the lead-up, through the select committee process, and during the conversations behind closed doors and in hallways.

Nothing has taught us this more than the recent End of Life Choice Bill.

David Seymour’s euthanasia bill took 16 months to progress through the Justice Select Committee. The committee read 35,000 submissions and travelled the country to listen to 1350 people share their experiences and beliefs.

Many of the submissions were based on the same arguments or beliefs, and about 90 percent of them expressed opposition to assisted dying. This is out of step with the general population, with Otago University research and a new 1 News/Colmar Brunton poll putting support at approximately 70 percent.

To add to the confusion over statistics, in what was already an emotive and drawn-out discussion, the committee tasked with reviewing and consulting on the bill was divided.

The Abortion Legislation Bill will be similarly contentious.

If the Government hopes to get the bill to third reading before next year’s election – as Little has said – it will need to learn some lessons from the failings of the End of Life Choice Bill’s journey.

Kiwis need time and sufficient opportunities to submit on the bill but a wholesale tour of the country, where MPs hear the same points repeatedly – usually in opposition - will not help advance the debate, improve the bill or ensure this important issue is dealt with in a timely manner.

The Abortion Legislation Bill is likely to pass but there is a core group of politicians strongly opposed to reform. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

There needs to be a clear balance struck in order to achieve genuine consultation without effectively filibustering through select committee.

The make-up of the committee is an important factor, and would ideally see a range of parties and viewpoints represented, in a constructive way.

Little has proposed the establishment of a special, sole-purpose select committee to deal with this piece of proposed legislation. This is aimed at giving the committee the time and focus it needs.

He has also written to the leaders of each party on Monday to set out his proposals for the process and asked them each to nominate members to sit on the committee.

As is the case for any contentious piece of legislation, the fight over reform versus status quo will play out in the public arena.

On Monday morning, the likes of Family Planning and the Abortion Law Reform Association were quick to issue press releases in support of reform, saying it was long-overdue but they would have liked to have seen a more liberal approach.

Meanwhile, Family First and Hannah Tamaki’s Coalition New Zealand party sent out messages in opposition, which used emotive language and graphics, calling the proposed changes “radical” and “anti-human rights”.

The debate over euthanasia has also showed the power of organised campaigns, backed with a bit of time, money and strong belief systems.

Members of Parliament will have to wade through the public campaigns mounted by those of both sides, in order to sort fact from fiction ahead of casting their votes. And with these sticky moral issues, it can sometimes be easier said than done.

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