New Zealand parliament passed the first reading of the bill to decriminalize abortion and strip the requirement of two-doctor permit sign-off.
Jacinda Ardern, the nation’s third female Prime Minister, had made the reforming law one of her election campaign promises.
On the introduction of the bill on Thursday, she said: “I am reflecting now, as we enter into this debate, on how long a journey it will have felt for many … to reach this day.”
Conservative group Family First NZ criticized the proposed law for ‘ignoring’ the rights of the unborn child.
Center-right National Party MP Maureen Pugh, who voted against the bill said, “I still struggle to understand what it is we are trying to fix.”
Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand President Terry Bellamak said, “The main reason for the delay in changing the law had been ‘political cowardice’ on the part of the country’s legislators on this divisive issue.”
The country, ranked 7th globally for gender equality in 2018 according to World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap report, criminalizes abortion under a 42-year-old draconian law, unless strict conditions are met.
In its review of the country’s human rights, the United Nations Human Rights Council called on the New Zealand government to remove abortion from the Crimes Act.
New Zealand became a British colony and subject to English law in 1841, which made abortion illegal. By 1852, New Zealand was self-governing and abortion could be accessed when a woman’s life or mental health was in danger.
Access to abortion is governed by the Crimes Act 1961 and the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977.
Despite being listed in the Crimes Act, thousands of women access abortion each year and between 1980 and 2016, only 40 people were charged with procuring an abortion – all these were in relation to assaults that intended to cause, or did cause, a miscarriage.
Abortion in New Zealand, before 20 weeks, can only be performed under extraordinary circumstances.
Each abortion is signed off by two specially appointed doctors who justify the ‘necessity’ for termination; ‘necessity’ in this context means that the abortion is inevitable to protect the pregnant woman from serious danger to her life, physical or mental well-being, beyond the normal dangers of pregnancy and childbirth.
Rape is not a valid ‘excuse’ that may allow termination of pregnancy under the current law.
After 20 weeks, permit for an abortion requires extreme circumstances that further inhibit access for women.
Pro-choice groups say that the country’s four decades old law creates stigma around abortion and forces women to jump through unnecessary hoops to get one, causing emotional, physical and financial distress.
The drawn-out process can have health impacts, too. Having an abortion earlier in the pregnancy is quicker, cheaper, and generally less distressing for the woman. Before 12 weeks, women can take pills to induce a termination, but after that they are limited to a surgical abortion.
In a survey conducted by a consulting company in 2017, found that 51% of New Zealanders believe that women should be allowed an abortion upon their request, while 25% believed it should be permitted under certain circumstances.