These numbers reveal the existing law is archaic and farcical, and that most agree that abortion should be considered a health issue not a criminal one. Abortion is covered by laws that have not been updated for 40 years. They say that two consultants need to agree that the woman’s mental or physical health is at risk or the baby would be seriously disabled before an abortion can be approved.
In most cases, it is merely a rubber-stamping exercise. Of the 13,000 abortions that were performed in New Zealand in 2015, nearly all were approved on mental health grounds (in 2014, that covered 97 per cent of abortions). Does anyone believe that more than 12,000 New Zealand women risked severe mental health outcomes if their pregnancies went full-term?
The fact that one in four New Zealand women have had an abortion suggests it has become mainstream, though it is a difficult personal decision that is rarely taken lightly and often at times of considerable distress. Some noted that even the language of the law reflects earlier, less enlightened times. Doctors are routinely referred to as “he” and the abhorrent term “subnormal” is used in a mental health context. This is what Abortions Supervisory Committee chair Dame Linda Holloway meant when she told Parliament last week that parts of the law seem “offensive” to us now. It also uses outdated medical terminology.
The committee’s appearance before the Justice and Electoral Select Committee put the otherwise dormant issue of abortion law under the spotlight. It made it political. For Opposition, there is the happy coincidence of having a conservative Catholic Prime Minister, Bill English, who refuses to back liberalisation and a Deputy Prime Minister and Women’s Affairs Minister, Paula Bennett, who has said she is “pro-choice” but is toeing the party line this time.
Act leader David Seymour identified that the current law is a “charade” from his party’s liberal perspective. But it is a charade we will keep playing for the time being. Despite such pressure, there is little political will for change and it is unlikely English and Bennett will be embarrassed into reversing their public positions on what remains a private and morally subjective area.