Women seeking an abortion are being offered easier access to the procedure with a free, national telephone consultation service that started this week.
Using the phone number 0800-ABORTION, the service has been set up by Wairarapa abortion doctor Simon Snook because of the delays, said to be potentially harmful, faced by many New Zealand women seeking to end a pregnancy.
The service offers to arrange counselling and organises the necessary medical tests and appointment with an abortion clinic. Patients leave a message and receive three calls back from, in succession, a nurse and two doctors.
"That can all be done within 24 hours of the first phone contact," said Dr Snook.
The first medical call is from a referring doctor instead of the patient having to find a GP or Family Planning practitioner. The second is from a certifying consultant who assesses if the patient meets the criteria for a lawful abortion, such as serious danger to her mental health if the pregnancy continues.
When asked if telephone consultations were suitable for assessing mental health risk and other potential grounds, Dr Snook said they were already done routinely in many parts of New Zealand. He added that the discussion with the second certifying consultant, who could be the practitioner who performed the abortion, was face-to-face.
Dr Snook is one of two certifying consultants involved in the service. He hopes more will join. It is funded by them donating part of the fees they are paid by the Ministry of Justice, so patients are not charged. Dr Snook said he was prompted to establish the service by research published in the journal Reproductive Health in 2010 showing that women seeking an abortion in the first third of pregnancy waited on average 24.9 days between the first visit with a referring doctor, and having the termination done. This was more than 10 days longer than the maximum - unless a woman opted for a delay to make up her mind - set by New Zealand guidelines.
The researchers said abortions were safe under hygienic conditions but "abortion-related mortality increases exponentially with additional weeks of gestation".
The number of abortions in New Zealand declined to 14,073 in 2013, from 18,511 in 2003.
Abortion Law Reform Association president Morgan Healey welcomed the new service, saying it "has the potential to greatly reduce waiting times, barriers to access and provide greater choice in terms of the type of abortion procedure available".
It would be especially helpful for women in rural areas, those with limited transport and those whose doctors would not refer them for an abortion.
Voice for Life president Bernard Moran said speeding up the process was irresponsible, undermined the need to ensure a woman was properly counselled, and could increase the number of abortions.
The new service would "trivialise" the legal process, said Mr Moran, whose group was "suspicious" of the 2010 research. "We thought it was part of an agenda to speed up access."
Women or girls must be consulted by:
• A referring doctor, typically a GP or Family Planning practitioner, who contacts an abortion clinic
• A certifying consultant, who assesses if she meets the criteria
• A second certifying consultant, whose assessment must agree with the first for abortion to proceed.
The criteria, which become stricter in later pregnancy, include:
• Serious danger to the woman's life, mental health or physical health if the pregnancy continues
• Fetal abnormality.