A Labour MP has taken the controversial step of proposing a new law to legalise abortion on request for women up to 24 weeks into a pregnancy.
Steve Chadwick, a midwife and former associate health minister, is gauging support for what would be the first changes to abortion law since 1978.
The Abortion Supervisory Committee has repeatedly urged Parliament to review the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act, which states the legal grounds for abortion, but MPs avoid the issue.
A judge has questioned the lawfulness of most abortions. Last year, 17,550 abortions were done, compared with 17,940 in 2008. Mrs Chadwick’s Abortion Reform Bill would take abortion out of the Crimes Act, making it solely a health matter and a choice for the patient, at least in the first part of pregnancy.
She said it would remove the requirement for patients to gain the prior approval of two “certifying consultants”, encourage abortions to be performed earlier in pregnancy, and increase access to medical abortions. Before 24 weeks’ gestation, registered health practitioners could carry out an abortion at the patient’s request. It would be regulated like any other medical procedure.
After 24 weeks, abortion would be permitted if a medical practitioner believed it was appropriate medically and with regard to the patient’s “current and future physical, psychological and social circumstances”. The bill would align New Zealand with Victoria, which decriminalised abortion in 2008.
“I’m not rushing this,” Mrs Chadwick said yesterday. “I just wanted to start raising awareness and have it as a human rights issue, a women’s health issue. The current act is [more than] 30 years old and needs to be looked at.”
But because MPs were divided 50-50 on abortion, she would not proceed until sure of majority support for the bill – in what would be a conscience vote in the House – to go to a select committee. She had not yet sought Labour caucus approval to put the bill in the parliamentary ballot.
The anti-abortion movement was swift to condemn the bill. “If it came onto the floor of the House, we would fight it tooth and nail,” said Voice for Life Auckland president Bernard Moran.
“The present law is a compromise to recognise that there is an unborn child, that there is a human person involved in this procedure.
Decriminalisation would basically be saying that the human person, the child, has no value whatsoever; it’s like removing an abscess or a tooth. That’s a modern form of barbarism.”
Mrs Chadwick, citing United Nations data, said abortion was permitted on request in 67 per cent of developed countries. New Zealand attitudes had become more liberal than those reflected by current legislation. The management of abortion law is before the Court of Appeal, with a hearing scheduled for October, after the group Right to Life challenged the Supervisory Committee.
In the High Court in 2008, Justice Forrest Miller expressed misgivings about the lawfulness of many abortions and said New Zealand essentially had abortion on request.
Prime Minister John Key did not answer Weekend Herald questions about the bill yesterday. Labour leader Phil Goff said he hadn’t given the matter much thought.