Abortion law reform. We’re still waiting ....

The University of Auckland's Liz Beddoe urges MPs to read the research, get in step with the majority and support decriminalisation of abortion now

Last October the Law Commission released its briefing paper on abortion law reform. This report was commissioned by Justice Minister Andrew Little in February 2018. 

Here we are well into June 2019 and we’re still waiting. 

Initially it was expected that the shape of new legislation would be announced in April. Over the intervening months there have been many personal stories shared by women determined to de-stigmatise abortion by explaining their choices and experiences of going through the hoops to get an abortion. 

So why the long delay? We can only surmise that there has been a political battle within the coalition and Andrew Little is working with the numbers to secure safe passage for a bill to decriminalise abortion. 

To recap, three options are on the table. All remove abortion from the Crimes Act. Option A proposes there be no statutory test and that a woman can access abortion as part of her health care. Option B requires a statutory test, for example sign-off by a doctor, but under health legislation. Option C is the compromise option. It combines aspects of A and B but with a focus on gestation. For pregnancies no more than 22 weeks, option A applies; over that gestation a statutory test in health legislation would be required. 

Changes to abortion law will be a matter of conscience. This means Members of Parliament have no obligation to take heed of the will of the electorate. But politicians must also be sensitive to their voters as abortion is one of those issues that attracts strong opposing positions. 

An article was published by the New Zealand Medical Journal last Friday reporting some important findings about public support for abortion in a study, conducted by University of Auckland PhD student Yanshu Huang. The study examines data on attitudes to abortion taken from the 2016-17 New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study which is a longitudinal panel survey of nearly 20,000 people aged over 18. 

The article, authored by Huang, Danny Osborne and Chris Sibley, reports that a majority of those surveyed either strongly agree or agree that abortion should be legal regardless of the reason, and even more strongly support legalisation if the woman’s life is endangered. Also considered are results from New Zealand Election study surveys that show in 2008 45 percent of those surveyed disagreed with a statement that abortion was always wrong, but by 2017 this figure had risen to almost 64 percent. Only 17 percent thought that abortion was always wrong. 

Andrew Little is quoted as welcoming the results of this new research in this report in Stuff. "This is an important public conversation, and one in which women's voices, experiences, and safety must be prioritised." Little wants to get on with “progressing both the public and policy discussions" around abortion law reform in the coming months. 

We hope this process can start soon, and I hope all MPs read this new study and think about how they vote in the months to come. New Zealanders clearly want abortion out of the Crimes Act. Most support abortion as the choice of the individual and available as a matter of health care. 

I’ve observed in comments on social media that many young people were surprised to find out that abortion isn’t just a matter of personal choice. But a press release from Statistics New Zealand earlier this week reports that in 2018 13,282 women had no choice but to use the current system to access an abortion. The current legislation has been in place for more than 40 years. It’s time to remove the barriers and make abortion a private matter. Let’s get rid of the intrusive and expensive system of certifying consultants that creates delays in women accessing a safe abortion. It’s time. 

I urge MPs to read the research, get in step with the majority and support decriminalisation now. Be pro-choice and don’t be swayed by a vociferous minority who want to continue with an unjust, invasive set of processes that deny women the right to decide over this most personal matter and stigmatise their choice. 

It’s time for free, accessible, supportive abortion services. 

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