Every year in New Zealand about 13,000 women have an abortion.
These are women from all walks of life. You probably know someone who has had an abortion. You just don’t know it because a woman who has had an abortion rarely tells. There is far too much stigma, and it is a highly personal decision.
There is a misinformed belief that women seeking abortions are fragile, confused, morally conflicted people who need multiple gatekeepers and counselling. This is simply untrue and troublingly patronising.
A woman who has had an abortion has had to navigate her way through a process that is guided and informed by two complicated, outdated laws – the Crimes Act 1961 and the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977.
Under these laws, a woman cannot decide for herself to end a pregnancy. She needs two doctors to decide if she meets narrow criteria under the Crimes Act. The Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act proscribes how abortion services are to be provided – but it is not fit-for-purpose in 2018. For example, 40 years ago, there was no early medical abortion where a woman takes medication to end a pregnancy.
Confirmation in just the last few weeks that the Minister of Justice has asked the Law Commission to initiate a process of reviewing our abortion laws signals that change to these laws is coming. In his letter to the Law Commission Hon Andrew Little said that the Government “is considering how best to ensure New Zealand’s abortion laws are consistent with treating abortion as a health issue.”
We support the Minister’s contention that our laws should treat abortion like any other health service. Most women are very competent and confident to make a decision about whether to end a pregnancy when they meet with a health practitioner. And, we believe most New Zealanders agree. We are a pragmatic people. We trust women to make their own decision about having an abortion, or not, just as we trust them to make decisions about every other facet of their lives.
The issue for us as a country moving forward with law reform is how we choose to treat women who want to end a pregnancy. Family Planning believes that what is most important, is that our new laws trust women to make the decision that is best for them and support this by ensuring that the best possible abortion services are available to any woman, if that is her decision. That’s what we all want from our health care system.
Unfortunately the current law does neither of these things. Our current laws get in the way of a woman getting the best abortion health care. The process of getting an abortion is overly complex, with medically unnecessary appointments, delays and limited services in many regions.
While it isn’t perfect, overall we have a top notch health system in New Zealand. Our abortion providers and health professionals provide the best abortion services they can within a system determined by and constrained by old law.
Plenty of countries have modernised their abortion laws to reflect evolving medical practice and social change – including our neighbours across the Tasman – without negative consequences. Abortion rates are declining around the world in developed countries as people have better access to highly effective contraception and sexual and reproductive health education and information.
If you were able to talk to a woman who had an abortion, we believe she would most likely say she was sure of her decision and felt relief following an abortion. Some women may be conflicted, and will work through these feelings with a partner, family and close friends. Of course there are some women who may really struggle with the decision to end a pregnancy and will need additional support through professional counselling. This should be available and accessible for women who need it.
Following the Law Commission review, it will be time for Members of Parliament to make a decision about how to move forward with our abortion laws. This vote will be a conscience vote. But our law should not be enacted to reflect the individual conscience – or religious or moral beliefs – of an individual lawmaker. We ask that MPs vote not for themselves, but on behalf of a woman who finds she is pregnant, and whatever her reasons, decides that she cannot have a child at that particular time. We ask that treating her with dignity and respect be paramount.
Jackie Edmond is Chief Executive of Family Planning which believes everyone has the right to high-quality, legal and safe abortion services.
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