Ireland voted on May 25 after a long and sometimes divisive campaign. Photo: ARTUR WIDAK/AFP/Getty Images

Separating fact from fiction on abortion law reform

Family Planning chief executive Jackie Edmond debunks some of the myths and misinformation around abortion law reform in New Zealand and the changes proposed by the Law Commission.

It’s important to have accurate information to decide how you feel about changing the law on abortion. The problem is, that isn’t always possible online. At Family Planning, we’ve had a number of queries about the law, and we’d like to present what we know to be accurate.

The Law Commission have not recommended abortion on demand

No health service is on demand. Abortion, just like all other health services, is provided based on professional advice.

Talking about abortion on demand is inflammatory and not helpful.

Women have to manage their reproductive lives for over three decades. They should be able to make a decision about not continuing a pregnancy in just the same way they can make a decision about starting a pregnancy, using contraception, or any of the other decisions they make on a day-to-day basis.

Should the Law Commission’s recommendations be accepted, all of the three models they’ve suggested mean a woman will go to her health practitioner to have a discussion about her health and whether she wants to continue a pregnancy.

As an organisation, we trust women to make the decision that is right for them, in consultation with their health provider.

The law as it stands is not working ‘just fine’

The law isn’t fine – abortion provision still sits within the ambit of the Crimes Act and the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act. These are old pieces of legislation from a different time and place.

The process now is complex and unnecessary and it’s out of step with international best practice. Women may have to travel, they will have to have multiple appointments, and they need to wait weeks. This is time-consuming, costly and unnecessary.

The status quo does not ‘protect’ women. Any changes will not put women at risk

Women do not need protecting. We trust women to make every other decision in their lives themselves. The status quo is demeaning: to get an abortion women have to prove they will have a mental illness if they continue with a pregnancy. They can’t decide themselves about what is right for them.

Abortions are safest when they’re performed as early as possible. Changes to the law should protect women’s health by ending many of the delays women currently face.

Abortion services can be regulated just like all other health services in New Zealand.

All doctors will not be forced to perform abortions

The Law Commission report has a full chapter on conscientious objection by clinicians and suggests two options. One option is to retain the current law which provides a clinician with the opportunity to conscientiously object. The second option requires health practitioners with conscientious objections to refer women to another health practitioner or health care provider – but they still don’t have to be involved in abortion themselves. These options can be found on page 161 and 162 of the Law Commission report.

The Law Commission is not calling for abortion on demand until birth

There is not abortion on demand until birth and never has been. And the Law Commission’s models do not call for abortion on demand until birth.

We know that abortions later in a pregnancy are a difficult and complex issue. They are rare, accounting for less than 1% of all abortions. They are never a choice made in isolation and the Law Commission report shows that almost all abortions at this stage are because of severe health issues.

Late abortion should be regulated in a way that allows health professionals to consider all the relevant medical circumstances, and the woman’s current and future physical, psychological and social circumstances in determining whether a late abortion is appropriate. This is what is suggested in the report.

A change in the law will not increase the number of abortions

Many countries have modernised abortion laws over the past few decades – and, there has not been an increase in the number of abortions.

International research is clear that restricting access to abortion does not reduce the number of abortions. It causes delays and stops health providers from following best practice guidelines. In the countries with the strictest abortion laws, many women still die from unsafe abortion.

Restricting access to abortion internationally costs lives. More than 55,000 women die of unsafe abortion every year.

Most New Zealanders support abortion law reform

New Zealand’s first Gender Attitudes Survey shows that 66% of New Zealanders agree that a woman should have the right to choose whether or not she has an abortion; 14% disagreed. A further 15% of New Zealanders were neutral and 5% didn’t know.

The New Zealand Attitudes and Values Survey – a projected 20-year longitudinal panel study of over 20,000 New Zealanders that began in 2009 – shows that the majority of New Zealanders are supportive of a woman’s right to abortion, and support has been gradually increasing over time.

The survey found that people who value traditional, limited roles for women are more likely to oppose abortion, as are those who identify as religious and those who are older.

Polls by Curia Research also show that the majority of New Zealanders support the right to abortion.

New Zealanders are pragmatic. The majority of us agree that women should be able to make a decision about whether to continue with a pregnancy. With nearly 13,000 women in New Zealand having an abortion each year – about one out of four in their lifetime – there are a lot of women who have made that decision, and a lot of men who know someone who has had an abortion.

During the past two decades, over 30 countries have modernised their abortion laws – New Zealand is behind on this issue. It’s simply time. The law review process that is happening now is an updating of an out-of-date law to match what we now understand about abortion as a public health issue. It makes absolute sense to change the law.


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