Andrew Little today fired the starting gun on reforming New Zealand's decades-old abortion laws, confirming that he had sent a draft referral to the two other governing parties for their comment. Thomas Coughlan reports on what to expect from the law change.
Andrew Little surprised observers today when he revealed that a draft referral on reforming New Zealand's abortion law had been circulated to New Zealand First and the Greens. Little said today that he received a letter from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern after the coalition was formed directing him to begin the process of reforming the law. Once the two parties give feedback, the referral will be sent to the Law Commission to make a recommendation.
Abortion in New Zealand is a crime under the Crimes Act, although the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act of 1977 allows a woman to have an abortion if she meets certain criteria and proves her need to two physicians.
Critics argue that the current legislation is out of date, inequitable, and the cause of unnecessary distress.
Terry Bellamak, President of the Abortion Law Reform Association, said that she would like to see abortion wiped from the Crimes Act and the restrictive grounds for abortion abolished.
Currently, abortion can be granted on the grounds that the pregnancy is a risk to the physical or mental health of the mother; that there is a substantial risk the child will be seriously handicapped; that the pregnancy is a result of incest; or that the woman is deemed to be "severely subnormal".
Bellamak said those stipulations must be abolished.
"We trust women to make their own decisions about their own bodies," she said.
Law reform campaigners say New Zealand's abortion laws are out-dated and do not take into account advances in the provision of abortions.
In 1980, a medication called RU-486 was developed allowing non-invasive medical abortions to take place for the first time. In 1987, France became the first country to legalise medical abortions.
A medical abortion, which is carried out up to nine weeks into the pregnancy, comprises two pills taken days apart that terminate the pregnancy. In many countries, it is common for the second pill to be taken at home.
New Zealand's law, written three years before RU-486 was developed, stipulates that abortion must take place in a clinic. This provision, intended to prevent dangerous back alley abortions, means that patients must travel to the clinic twice, simply to take a pill. For patients in rural areas, this can be a long and expensive exercise.
Dr Christine Roke, National Medical Advisor to Family Planning, said the added steps were a barrier to best practice.
"It adds time and it adds cost," said Roke.
New Zealand is an outlier among OECD countries for the time it takes to get an abortion and the way abortions are provided to patients.
In New Zealand, a patient must be referred to two specialists to sign-off on the abortion. If one refuses, the woman may need to find a third specialist. The average time from referral to procedure is 25 days.
In other countries the it can take just a week from referral to procedure. This makes it more likely for New Zealand patients to require a surgical, rather than a medical abortion, as they have passed the nine week mark.
In New Zealand, only 15 percent of abortions are medical abortions. By contrast, 62 percent of abortions in the UK are medical abortions and 45 percent of abortions performed before nine weeks (two-thirds of the total number) in the United States are medical abortions.
One part of the reforms that may be contentious surrounds the right of physicians to object to performing abortions. Currently, a physician is not obliged to refer a patient to another, consenting, physician or even tell patients that their objection is on the grounds of conscience.
"It's weighted towards doctors at the expense of patients," said Bellamak.
"A clause they're talking about talking about putting into the euthanasia bill is better than what they've got for abortion," she said.
Bellamak said she would like New Zealand's law to be reformed along the lines of Canada.
"Canada has absolutely no abortion laws and no regulations around abortion. They simply trust women," she said.
Roke said that she wanted abortion taken out of the Crimes Act and handed to the Ministry of Health.
"I would like it to become an integrated component of a comprehensive reproductive and sexual health service"
So far there has been little detail from the Government on what the reformed law would look like or when the legislation would be introduced.
During the election campaign, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern expressed her personal view that should abortion be taken out of the Crimes Act so it is likely that this will form some part of the reform.
On Tuesday, Andrew Little refused to give much detail on what reform might look like, but suggested it might be broader than taking abortion out of the Crimes Act.
"There are more issues than just what's in the Crimes Act … it's also the hurdles that have been put in the way of women who are faced with making that decision," he said.
The vote would be a conscience vote, meaning MPs would be given the ability to vote freely without following a party line. Reform is likely to be supported by the Prime Minister, liberal members of her party and the Green Party.