It would be safer for women having a medical abortion to take the medicine at home, rather than follow an archaic law and travel to a clinic while potentially suffering from bleeding, stomach pain or diarrhoea, MPs have been told.
The Abortion Supervisory Committee (ASC), appearing before the justice select committee yesterday, made a plea for abortion law to be updated and for politicians to tackle the issue, noting it had been over three years since a minister last met the committee.
Hours after the committee appearance, Justice Minister Andrew Little said he would consult the Greens and NZ First before formally asking the Law Commission to review the law, including looking at decriminalisation.
Abortion is a polarising issue and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said before the election that she wanted to change the law and decriminalise it.
The ASC chair earlier told MPs that changing the 41-year-old law was a greater priority than decriminalisation.
Pregnancy counsellor Carolyn McIlraith, appearing with the ASC, said that medical abortion meant taking a pill at a registered licensed clinic, followed by a second dose in the same clinic 24 hours later.
"We can't give it to her and allow her to go home. She must return to that clinic twice," McIlraith said.
Medical abortion accounted for 15 per cent of all abortions in 2016. It is available for pregnancies that are fewer than nine weeks. After that, surgery is required.
ASC chairwoman Professor Dame Linda Holloway said that the requirement to be in a clinic was stressful, outdated and unnecessary.
"[The second dose] takes effect really very quickly. If you're trying to get back to somewhere a few hours away on a bus, or if you were trying to drive yourself, and dealing with abdominal pain, bleeding and diarrhoea, this is less than satisfactory than if you could take the medication in the comfort and privacy of your own home."
Some areas did not have registered clinics close by, she said.
Less risk having a termination than having a baby currently. That says a lot.
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"If you are a woman from Dargaville or Kaikohe, any of the places in Northland that have little local hospitals, the very dedicated people in Whangarei are not even able to arrange for the woman to have it prescribed ... in any of these smaller centres."
McIlraith added that the safety risks of taking the medicine was low.
"Less risk having a termination than having a baby currently. That says a lot."
Asked about enabling women to take the doses at a more convenient facility, including a private home, Holloway said there was a range of options.
"Someone on a methadone programme can go to a specially registered pharmacist and take the medication and be observed taking it, for example. There are various ways the law could be modified."
But right at this moment there were "zero" alternatives.
In Britain, MPs are now considering legislation to allow women to take abortion pills at home without fear of prosecution, after advice that the need to be in a clinic was "needlessly intrusive".
New Zealand's per capita abortion rate — 8.6 abortions per 1000 women aged 15 to 44 — is much lower than in Great Britain and Scandinavian countries.
According to the ASC's annual report, New Zealand abortion rates fell each year since a peak in 2006, despite fears that more services would lead to higher numbers. There were 18,382 abortions in 2007. In 2016, there were 12,823 — 1970 of which were medical abortions.
But there was a disproportionately high number of abortions in Auckland City, mainly because of a lack of service options in South Auckland.
Holloway said the committee had asked Counties-Manukau DHB to set up a service, but to no avail.
The political attitude to abortion law was that it was broadly working and that her committee should basically go away, she said.
Little said he hoped to have a report back from the Law Commission by the end of the year.
National Party leadership contender Judith Collins said that abortion law was working as it should.