New Zealand’s new legislation that would decriminalise abortion will be sent to a parliamentary Select Committee after it overwhelmingly passed its first reading last Thursday.
Of the 120 Members of Parliament, all of whom were free to vote according to conscience, 94 submitted votes in favour of the abortion law reform bill with 23 against; Wanaka’s representative, Waitaki MP Jacqui Dean, was amongst those who opposed the bill. Three National Party MPs were absent from the vote.
After the Select Committee reviews the legislation and conducts consultations, there will likely be more rounds of voting in order for it to become passed into law. The bill will be decided by MPs on a conscience vote, although NZ First has indicated they want a referendum.
“I will be making an informed vote against the bill,” Dean told the Wanaka Sun. “I feel I am making this decision based on much thought and research. I chaired a Justice Select Committee petition into abortion services during National's last term in government in 2016," she said. "At the end of that process, I concluded that the system we have now works well, but that a woman’s decision must be supported by counselling both prior to and after the abortion, and that this must be protected in legislation.”
She added, “My fear is that the removal of those checks and balances means women will miss out on an important opportunity to reflect on their decision at a difficult moment in their lives.”
Dean did not return our request for comment on her stance between the human rights of women within maternity care protection, maternity service provisions and local birthing resources versus the human rights of women within mental health, bodily autonomy and legally acceptable reasons for electing to get an abortion. She also did not return our request for comment on whether or not she views abortion as a crime rather than a health issue, one of the bigger concepts highlighted in the new bill.
The new legislation, which aims to modernise the abortion law for the first time since 1977, would remove abortion from a 1960s Crimes Act, loosen restrictions surrounding the procedure and treat it as a 'health issue rather than a criminal issue.'
Under current law, an abortion is only legal with the approval of two doctors who both agree that the pregnancy would threaten the health of the mother, is a case of incest or that the foetus carries an abnormality. To date, there has never been a conviction under NZ’s current abortion laws despite it falling under the country’s criminal code.
"Safe abortion should be treated and regulated as a health issue; a woman has the right to choose what happens to her body," said Justice Minister Andrew Little.
Under the new bill, a pregnant woman less than 20 weeks would be able to seek an abortion without a referral. She would be able to refer herself to an abortion service provider and would have to be made aware of counselling services, though counselling would not be mandatory. Past a 20-week pregnancy, a woman would be able to obtain an abortion with a doctor's approval, who would need to 'reasonably believe' the woman's mental and physical health were adequate for the procedure to move forward. The bill would also allow for 'safe areas' within 500 feet of clinics where protests or demonstrations would be prohibited.
In the year ended December 2018, there were 13,282 abortions in NZ. Little said he did not expect the numbers to increase if the procedure were to be decriminalised.
If the abortion reform bill gets final approval, it is projected to be passed into law in six months.