By: Lucy Bennett
The Law Commission has outlined abortion law reforms that would remove abortion from the Crimes Act and repeal the need for two doctors to authorise the procedure.
The commission has delivered its nearly 300-page briefing on the issue to Justice Minister Andrew Little today.
It proposes three alternative legal models for lawful abortion, all of which would require abortion to be taken out of the Crimes Act and to repeal the requirement for two doctors to authorise the procedure.
Justice Minister Andrew Little said the commission received almost 3500 public submissions on the issue and met a range of health bodies in developing the paper.
“Our abortion law is over 40 years old, starts with the proposition that abortion is a crime. In February I asked the Law Commission for advice on what treating abortion as a health matter could look like,” Little said.
In its briefing, the commission outlined changes to:
- Criminal aspects of abortion law
- Access to abortion services, where they are performed and by who
- The oversight of abortion services
- Related issues such as women’s informed consent, counselling services and conscientious objection by health practitioners.
Under Model A proposed by the Law Commission, there would be no statutory test to be satisfied before an abortion could be performed and the decision would lie with the woman in consultation with her health practitioner.
Under Model B, there would be a statutory test but it would be in health legislation rather than the Crimes Act. Under the test the health practitioner would need to reasonably believe the abortion is appropriate in the circumstances, having regard to the woman’s physical and mental health and wellbeing.
Model C would combine aspects of A for pregnancies under 22 weeks and Model B for those over 22 weeks.
The commission proposed either repealing the criminal offence for abortion or limiting them only to unqualified practitioners.
It also said that aspects of the current law could cause delay and other barriers for women seeking abortions. It said allowing women to self-refer rather than requiring a doctor’s referral would improve access.
Repealing legal restrictions on who performs abortions and where would allow them to be performed ( including administering abortion drugs) by a wider group of practitioners and at other health facilities such as medical centres and family planning centres.
It suggested consideration be given to “safe access zone” around abortion clinics to protect women from being intimidated or harassed by protesters.
“The commission found insufficient evidence to conclude that reform is necessary to protect against such behaviour. This issue, could, however, be considered further if problems were to arise,” It said.
The Abortion Supervisory Committee could be abolished and its oversight functions shifted to the Ministry of Health, which could also take over issuing best practice guidelines to practitioners.
The commission said many submitters raised concerns around informed consent and whether women were adequately supported to make informed decisions, but it suggested counselling should be available but not mandatory.
Abortion Law Reform Association MNZ (Alranz) welcomed the briefing but said Model B, which put the decision in the hands of a health practitioner, did not fulfil the promise made by Jacinda Ardern during last year’s election campaign.
“Model A is clearly superior because it treats abortion as a health issue like any other, and does not place unnecessary barriers between pregnant people and abortion care,” said Terry Bellamak, Alranz national president.
Abortion is a polarising issue and before the election, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said it should not be a crime and she would change the law.
Little today acknowledged that the issue of abortion was personal for each MP and he would talk to colleagues across all parties before progressing further.