Nicholas Jones is a New Zealand Herald political reporter.

No update to abortion law, Justice Minister Amy Adams confirms

Justice Minister Amy Adams has ruled out abortion law changes. File photo / Mark Mitchell
Justice Minister Amy Adams has ruled out abortion law changes. File photo / Mark Mitchell

New Zealand's 40-year-old abortion law will not be updated - despite it including terms such as "subnormal", Justice Minister Amy Adams has confirmed.

Yesterday the Government-appointed Abortion Supervisory Committee (ASC) used its annual appearance at Parliament to call for a redrafting of the legislation - saying not to do so would be an "indictment" given some of the offensive language.

Although some of the language and medical terms in the legislation might be considered offensive or outdated, there is no indication that that in itself should be inhibiting women from being able to access abortion appropriately.
Justice Minister Amy Adams

The outdated wording in the legislation was creating problems for health officials and allowing anti-abortion groups to launch legal challenges, the committee reported.

The strong criticism of aspects of abortion law comes amid increasing political debate about the issue. Labour, the Green Party and Act Party are all calling for change.

But Justice Minister Amy Adams has ruled that out - saying the Government had a full plate in terms of legislative change, including on issues such as family and sexual violence, money laundering and vulnerable children.

"We are not currently looking at reforming or re-drafting the abortion law on the basis that it is working broadly as intended.

"Although some of the language and medical terms in the legislation might be considered offensive or outdated, there is no indication that that in itself should be inhibiting women from being able to access abortion appropriately."

While calling for the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act, passed in 1977, to be updated, the ASC made clear the larger issue of more significant changes was a question for the public and Parliament.

Dame Linda Holloway, ASC chairwoman, told a Parliamentary committee yesterday that the legislation's wording was causing "enormous administrative problems" for the ASC and health practitioners.

The law was not written in inclusive language, Dame Linda said.

"In fact, some parts of the language is actually quite offensive, referring to people as subnormal, for example. Really it is an indictment that we have statute like that on the books that is not being corrected."

Health in New Zealand and how hospitals are run and operated had changed substantially since the 1970s, Dame Linda told the committee.

The abortion law referred to the "operating doctor". Now many women who received abortions were medically induced.

"There is no operating doctor. Again, that can cause lots of challenges and hassle," Dame Linda said.

Wendy Aldred, legal counsel to ASC, said it had been sued by those opposed to abortion. Aside from an 18-month break, the committee had been involved in litigation since 2004.

While those cases have eventually been won, the outdated wording in the legislation had left the door open to expensive and time-consuming legal challenges, Aldred said.

Abortion is only legal if two consultants agree that the pregnancy would seriously harm the woman's mental or physical health or that the foetus would have a serious disability.

Labour Party leader Andrew Little wants the Law Commission to review abortion law. New Zealand Herald Photograph by Mark Mitchell.
Labour Party leader Andrew Little wants the Law Commission to review abortion law. New Zealand Herald Photograph by Mark Mitchell.

Labour leader Andrew Little has called Prime Minister Bill English "deeply conservative" on abortion law, and says he believes the legislation needs to be reviewed and upgraded, and abortion should not be on the Crimes Act.

However, he will not commit to introducing legislation if in Government; Labour policy is for the law to first be reviewed by the Law Commission.

Last weekend, English, a practising Catholic, told TVNZ's Q+A programme he did not think the law needed to be modernised, saying it had "stood the test of time".

The Green Party has already made abortion reform a party issue, rather than a conscience issue.

The Greens' policy would decriminalise abortion. Terminations after 20 weeks would be allowed only when the woman would otherwise face serious permanent injury to her health or in the case of severe fetal abnormalities.

Its women's spokeswoman, Jan Logie, said today that the ASC was clearly telling the government that the legislation had not stood the test of time.

Asked if she would introduce a private member's bill, Logie said none would pass before the election and the national conversation would probably happen after September's election.

- NZ Herald

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