New Zealand has announced a bill to legalise abortion for all women that would reclassify terminations as a health matter rather than a crime.

For decades thousands of New Zealand women have struggled to access abortion in as equitable and timely manner. The current law says abortion is a crime and legal only in cases of incest, “mental subnormality” or foetal abnormality, or where the physical or mental health of the mother is at serious risk.

Other factors that may be taken into consideration but are not grounds in themselves include “sexual violation” and “extremes of age”, and the procedure requires the sign-off two doctors.

The justice minister, Andrew Little, announced the bill that would see abortion reclassified as a health issue and not a crime, and would bring New Zealand law into line with many other developed countries.

“Abortion is the only medical procedure that is still a crime in New Zealand. It’s time for this to change,” said Little in a statement.

“Safe abortion should be treated and regulated as a health issue; a woman has the right to choose what happens to her body.”

Under the draft legislation, which will have its first reading on Thursday, no statutory test would be required for a women wanting to terminate a pregnancy up to 20 weeks of pregnancy. Women would be able to self-refer to abortion providers, bypassing the need for a doctor’s visit, and would be advised of counselling and support services, though counselling would not be mandatory.

Women wanting to terminate a pregnancy that is more than 20 weeks would need the sign-off of a health practitioner, who would need to “reasonably believe the abortion is appropriate with regard to the pregnant woman’s physical and mental health, and well-being”.

Safe areas would also be set up around abortion specific services as required “on a case-by-case basis.”

Terry Bellamak, director of ALRANZ Abortion Rights Aotearoa said New Zealand women have waited decades for the overhaul and though the bill was “a huge step forward, and quite an achievement”, the details were a bit of a “mixed bag”.

“It’s not as good as it could have been, but it’s so much better than the status quo … it’s a good start,” Bellamak said.

“But why the 20 week limit? There are scans that happen around 20 weeks, and this gives people little time to consider those results.

“The safe areas seem to be reactive rather than proactive, because the regulations are made on a case-by-case basis. Does this mean providers and patients must suffer actual harassment, intimidation, or injury before they can apply to the minister for a safe area? That might put health practitioners off providing abortion care.”

The bill will be treated as a conscience issue, with MPs able to cast their votes independent of their political party’s position.


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