Editorial: Rethink of pregnancy edict needed

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A young New Zealand woman who became pregnant while studying overseas would doubtless look askance if she was told she must return to this country to have her baby. The stress arising from such upheaval raises obvious concerns about the welfare of the mother and her baby. The vast majority of health authorities would surely hesitate before delivering such an edict. Yet this very situation is being enacted in New Zealand, notably in the case of Sung Won Kim, a 31-year-old horticulture student at the International College of Auckland.

Immigration New Zealand attributes the policy to this country's shortage of maternity care specialists and midwives. It says such women would put an additional strain on services that are stretched in most areas of the country. Because of the shortages, it will not even accept women who are prepared to pay their full medical and maternity-care costs. That sum could range from $4000 to $8500.

The policy seems ill-considered. In the first instance, it casts New Zealand in a poor light, especially to parents who may be considering sending a daughter to this country to study. The schools that benefit greatly from such students must be concerned by the publicity and portrayal of this country offered by Sung Won Kim's case. Second, the number of women on temporary residency permits who become pregnant cannot surely be such that it represents a sizeable burden on maternity services.

There may once have been a danger of women deliberately becoming pregnant so their children could be born here and gain New Zealand citizenship, but that incentive was nipped in the bud three years ago. Changes to the New Zealand Citizenship Act mean at least one of the parents must be a New Zealand citizen for that to happen. It can, therefore, be assumed that many of the pregnancies are unplanned, and the more stressful for it.

Most of the students who get pregnant have reasonably wealthy parents. Only such households can afford to send their children overseas to advance their studies. Many are, therefore, in a position to pay for maternity care. Such payment would not, as the Immigration Service points out, address the immediate concern of a shortage of such services. But if it was allotted to district health boards for use on their maternity wards, and they came to have a reasonable expectation of such funding, it would help to improve services in the medium term.

Thus, there appears room for compromise. It seems fair that women on temporary residency permits who are prepared to pay the full price of medical and maternity care should be allowed to have their babies in this country. The case for those who are married or in a stable relationship and do not wish to be separated from their partners is even stronger. They would be making a financial contribution that, over time, should benefit the health system. If the revenue from these women does not fulfil expectations, that would simply confirm that the problem has been overstated.

New Zealand's Human Rights Act lists "discrimination due to pregnancy". There is, however, a specific provision to exempt immigration matters. This, presumably, was inserted as a safeguard against women seeking citizenship for their children. That concern was addressed specifically by the 2006 changes to the citizenship law. There seems little reason to maintain the exemption. Take it away and New Zealand's policy appears, as one pregnant woman facing a removal order put it, "unduly harsh and discriminatory". These orders are too hard-edged - for this country's image and for the stress they place on pregnant women.

- NZ Herald

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