New Government bill seeks to remove abortion from Crimes Act, treat it as a health issue

Anna Whyte
Source: 1News

The Government's proposed plan for abortion law reform has been released, after months of delays, in which the Government seeks to remove abortion from the Crimes Act. 

The Justice Minister announced today the proposed law would remove the statutory test for a person less than 20 weeks pregnant, allow a woman to self-refer to an abortion provider and create a body to look at buffer zones around some abortion providers. 

"Abortion is the only medical procedure that is still a crime in New Zealand, it's time for this to change," Andrew Little said. 

Mr Little said the 20 weeks period was chosen as "nearly 90 per cent of abortions are carried out in the first trimester… there are a very, very small number that happen after that".

"This is about making a shift from the criminal framework to the health framework."

He said the current form of the bill gave it the best chance to get it over the line in Parliament and was aiming to get it through by the next election. 

The proposed law is a version of the Law Commission's recommended Model C , which makes the decision of abortion up to the woman in consultation with a health practitioner with no statutory test for the first 20 weeks. The abortion practitioner would still be required to ensure the woman was making an informed choice and give informed consent.

For a women who was more than 20 weeks pregnant, a statutory test would still be required, with the practitioner needed to establish the abortion "is appropriate with regard to the pregnant woman’s physical and mental health, and wellbeing", as well as ensuring informed choice and informed consent was given. 

The self referral provision was intending to remove the waiting period of seeing a GP or health practitioner to be referred to the abortion service. "This will remove some delay and cost barriers to women accessing abortion services," the bill stated. 

The bill also proposes to create a regulation-making power which would look at creating buffer zones around some abortion facilities so protesters would not be able to stand outside. 

Health practitioners who objected to providing abortion services would have to inform patients of their conscience objection and tell the patient they can obtain services elsewhere. 

It would still be a crime for unqualified people attempt or supply means for obtaining an abortion and for killing an unborn child for any person who caused harm to a pregnant woman.

It would still be a requirement for practitioners to offer and advise patients that counselling was available, but women did not have to take the counselling. Women currently are required to undergo counselling. 

Mr Little said the bill would modernise New Zealand's abortion law, "bringing the law into line with many other developed countries".

"Safe abortion should be treated and regulated as a health issue; a woman has the right to choose what happens to her body."

"We want to improve access to services, and support the best health and wellbeing outcomes for women," he said. 

He said oversight of abortion services would go to the Abortion Supervisory Committee to the Ministry of Health. 

The bill will have its first reading this Thursday in Parliament, where MPs will vote as a conscience issue, rather than voting as a party. 

Last November, the Law Commission released its  briefing paper  on how abortion could be placed as a health issue. The briefing paper also proposes changes to the law by repealing abortion from the Crimes Act.

The current rules allow for abortion under 20 weeks in cases of serious danger to life, physical health or mental health, incest and foetal abnormality. Sexual violation is a factor that can be taken into account.

A person needs two certifying doctors to provide certificates to obtain an abortion, and unbiased counselling must be undertaken prior.

ALRANZ Abortion Rights Aotearoa’s president Terry Bellamak welcomed the bill, but called it a "mixed bag".

"It's not as good as it could have been, but it’s so much better than the status quo, we have to give the Government props for that," she said.

Ms Bellamak said the good parts were: "Full decriminalisation; the ability to self-refer to an abortion service and bypass GPs; no special licence required over and above what other health clinics need; qualified health practitioners who are not doctors can provide the service".

She went on to say: "But why the 20 week limit? There are scans that happen around 20 weeks, and this gives people little time to consider those results".

"The safe areas seem to be reactive rather than proactive, because the regulations are made on a case by case basis. Does this mean providers and patients must suffer actual harassment, intimidation, or injury before they can apply to the Minister for a safe area? That might put health practitioners off providing abortion care".