Abortion as an election issue?
Put a microphone in front of politicians and it is usually difficult to shut them up. However, there’s one socially divisive subject virtually guaranteed to send most political candidates running for cover: Abortion law reform.
It has been nearly 40 years since Parliament last concerned itself in any substantive way with abortion, and that reluctance makes efforts by the Greens to turn abortion law reform into an election issue noteworthy.
The Greens are proposing to decriminalise abortion and make access to abortion solely a decision between the woman and her doctor during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Access to counselling would be maintained, and abortion beyond 20 weeks would require serious and permanent health impacts on the mother, or serious abnormalities in the foetus.
Abortion is currently an offence under the 1961 Crimes Act.
It becomes a legal procedure only if two consultants agree that the continuation of the pregnancy would seriously affect the mental or physical health of the woman, or that the foetus has a serious abnormality.
Green Party women’s spokeswoman Jan Logie has called for a more honest approach.
‘‘The fact that 99 per cent of abortions are approved on mental health grounds and that rape is not grounds for an abortion reveals the dishonesty of the current legal situation,’’ she says.
‘‘By keeping abortion a crime, New Zealand has created an unnecessary stigma around abortion that has led to delays, erratic access to terminations depending on where you are in the country, and unnecessarily late terminations.’’ Perhaps. De- criminalisation, however, would seem unlikely to resolve all the issues concerning availability.
In parts of New Zealand, limited access to consultants and termination procedures also reflects the shortage of resources, and of health professionals willing to do this work.
In effect, New Zealand has a 1977 law written quite conservatively, but interpreted rather liberally.
Even so, as Logie says, a pregnancy resulting from rape – or from incest – is not automatic grounds for abortion.
If, in future, a socially conservative government insisted that the law should be interpreted strictly as written, that would change the abortion landscape.
In recent years, the courts have basically maintained the status quo, notably in the landmark 2012 Right to Life vs Abortion Supervisory Committee case.
By a narrow 3-2 margin, the Supreme Court ruled the courts should not require the committee to investigate whether the certifying decisions by individual doctors were valid.
To that extent, the current access to abortion is balanced on a quite narrow platform of legality and political will.
In the case of the Conservative Party – a prospective National coalition partner – Colin Craig indicated to me in an interview last year his position was that parental consent should be required up to 16 – and possibly 18 – and that independent abortion counselling should be mandatory.
Possibly, the Greens’ initiative will be only a footnote to the election campaign.
If so, the divisive issue of access to abortion will simmer away unaddressed and unresolved.