Abortion is in the spotlight again, after voters in Ireland voted overwhelmingly late last month to overturn the largely Catholic country's ban by 66.4 per cent to 33.6 per cent. The Emerald Isle's referendum comes as a law commission in New Zealand considers removing abortion from the Crimes Act. Bay of Plenty Times Weekend reporter Dawn Picken spoke with advocates, activists and women who've had or considered abortions about what decriminalising the procedure means to them.
*note: names of women who've had abortions have been changed to protect privacy.
Tania and Scott were thrilled when they learned they were pregnant with their second child. Everything was going well when the couple went for their 20-week ultrasound to learn the baby's sex. It was a boy, says Tania.
"We were also told that the baby's heart appeared not to be growing as it should."
They waited two weeks to see a team of specialists in Auckland who explained the foetus had hypoplastic left heart syndrome.
"Not only did he have half a heart, he had several other deformities with valves and blood vessels."
Doctors outlined three options: terminate the pregnancy; carry to term knowing the baby would survive at most a few days; or go full-term and initiate a series of heart surgeries, that, if he survived, would still result in poor quality of life.
"We were given an impossible decision to make. We were told there was no wrong answer, but to me if felt like there was no right answer. I cried for days," Tania said.
Scott, 27, and Tania, 30, said they chose to spare their future son further suffering.
"It was not fair on either my toddler or my unborn son to put them through that life," says Tania.
Despite the circumstances, Tania's procedure needed to be signed off by two doctors. She had to prove she was aborting for her mental health, repeating reasons for the termination she didn't believe.
"I hated feeling like I was choosing to do this for myself. I didn't want to inflict suffering on an innocent child."
Still a Crime
About 13,000 women every year in New Zealand have an abortion. About one in four Kiwi women are estimated to have terminated a pregnancy.
Two laws govern the procedure – the Crimes Act 1961 and the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act of 1977.
Legal grounds for abortion under 20 weeks' gestation are if the pregnancy poses serious danger to life, physical health, or mental health. Incest, mental 'sub normality' and foetal abnormality also provide legal grounds for termination, but rape does not. Contraceptive failure and inability to support a child are also excluded as grounds for abortion.
After 20 weeks, grounds are different.
They are: to save the mother's life and to prevent serious permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the mother. Foetal abnormality in itself is not a ground for abortion after 20 weeks.
Women may choose a medical abortion (pill) up to nine weeks into a pregnancy.
There's no legal age limit for having an abortion and no requirement for minors to tell a parent or guardian.
Latest statistics available (from 2016) show 97 per cent of women had abortions on grounds of 'danger to mental health'.
The Bay of Plenty Regional Health District reports 570 abortions (medical and surgical) happened during the 2016/17 financial year.
A doctor who has a conscientious objection to abortion is not required to assist in performing one and may also refuse to refer a woman for assessment.
Politics of Pregnancy Termination
Abortion laws haven't changed in more than four decades. The topic became an election issue last year when Jacinda Ardern said she would shift abortion out of the Crimes Act, where it had sat since 1977. She said there would be a majority of Parliament that think women shouldn't face being criminals for accessing their own rights.
Labour's Minister of Justice Andrew Little earlier this year said the Government was considering how best to ensure New Zealand's abortion laws were consistent with treating abortion as a health issue. The minister asked the Law Commission to provide a briefing on what alternative approaches could be taken in our legal framework to align with a health approach.
National Party leader and Tauranga MP Simon Bridges tells Bay of Plenty Times Weekend abortion is a conscience issue, and he will not tell any of the 56 MPs in his party how to vote.
"There's a real mood given what's happened in Ireland, but I would make the point it's a very different situation in Ireland, because there, it was effectively a ban where women had to go overseas or smuggle in the abortion pills," Bridges said.
Bridges says New Zealand's regime, while not perfect, is already more permissive than what he believes Ireland will enact.
"It's no secret I myself have been socially conservative … there are complex issues in relation to abortion and the law."
As to whether abortion should remain in the Crimes Act, he says, "I want to read the Law Commission's report really carefully, but I wouldn't want to see the law become more permissive than it already is today."
Todd Muller, National MP for Bay of Plenty, says his longstanding personal position on abortion is opposition informed by faith and belief in sanctity of life.
"That being said, my personal perspective is just that – personal. I accept that others will hold a different view and they are more than entitled to do so. Under the Crimes Act abortion is unlawful with a limited number of exceptions. I am open to considering a change as to whether abortion laws should remain under the Crimes Act, however, I would oppose any significant liberalisation of the conditions on which abortions are permitted," he said.
Tauranga Labour List MP Angie Warren-Clark sits on Parliament's Health Select Committee.
She said abortion was a health issue which shouldn't be in the Crimes Act because it's not a crime.
Warren-Clark says people not personally connected to abortion are likely unaware how complex accessing the procedure can be.
"It's only when probably you find yourself having an unwanted pregnancy that you realise there's a process involved which removes your right as a woman from making a decision about your body and is given over to two certifying consultants."
She says women assume they'll have access, but the latest statistics available from 2016 show 252 women in New Zealand who sought abortions were denied the procedure.
"I think about how difficult that must be for those families."
Public input to the Law Commission wrapped up last month, with 3418 submissions received. The commission will provide advice to the minister in October. After that, it's expected MPs will cast a conscience vote on whether to remove abortion from the Crimes Act.
Guilt after she Changed her Mind
Ashley was 24 when she fell pregnant. She was living in the Bay of Plenty and had been with her partner five years. He was older and wanted children, so Ashley stopped taking contraceptive pills and got pregnant within weeks.
Ashley started doubting her ability to be a mum so young. She said her partner wasn't acting like someone who would soon become a dad.
"By the time I was 19 weeks, things had become pretty bad with my partner. I wasn't sure I could be forced to be connected to him for the rest of my life."
The couple broke up and Ashley told her doctor she wanted to terminate the pregnancy. Because she was nearing 20 weeks, she would have to see a doctor in Auckland. The day before the appointment, Ashley changed her mind.
"I already knew at that stage that I was having a daughter and having seen the scans I had seen what to me looked like a fully formed child and the thought of ripping the baby apart all because she wasn't part of my plan seemed spineless and the most selfish thing I had ever considered.
"It wasn't like I didn't have a supportive family or the ability to raise a child, it was purely because having the baby as a single mum would change my lifestyle and would mean delaying my plans to live abroad."
She had already had one miscarriage and a stillbirth at 28 weeks, so Ashley believed she wasn't meant to have a child with her partner.
Today, Ashley can't imagine life without her daughter.
"When she was born I carried this crazy feeling of guilt for months over the thought that I had made an appointment to basically get rid of her. I teared up quite often and apologised to her numerous times."
Ashley says her decision might have been different if she'd acted during her first trimester.
"I can't say I would have made the same choice had I been earlier along. I am definitely pro-choice and would never judge anyone for going through with it."
Pro-life and Pro-choice groups, religious organisations and members of the public had until May 18 to submit their views to the Law Commission.
Family First's submission states: "Those who argue for the decriminalisation of abortion do so by prioritising the right of the pregnant woman to self-determination regarding decisions affecting her own body. The right of the unborn child to life, even the humanity of the unborn baby must be considered secondary, or denied entirely, for this point of view to hold."
Family First director Bob McCoskrie says abortion is a health issue for the mother and the unborn child.
"To remove legislation about abortion from the criminal code and insert it to the health code is to equate a procedure to remove an unborn baby with a procedure to remove an appendix. This denies the humanity of the baby and creates inconsistency with other legislation which clearly recognises the rights of the unborn child."
Family First cites a Curia Market Research Poll released early this year showing 9 per cent support for the current legal limit for abortion of 20 weeks.
Fifty per cent of respondents thought the time limit should be shorter, and a further 36 per cent were unsure. Of those who did pick a time limit, 15 weeks was the median choice, according to Curia. Sixty-five per cent of respondents agreed society should work to reduce the number of abortions. Fifty-two per cent said they generally supported abortion; 29 per cent opposed it and 19 per cent were unsure.
Voice For Life president Jacqui de Ruiter, in a post to the organisation's website, called on Parliament to review New Zealand's abortion law to make it more fit-for-purpose for the 21st century, but said the organisation demands the review be extensive and involve input from all interested community members.
VFL spokeswoman Kate Cormack said in a written statement that if sections of the Crimes Act pertaining to abortion were removed, but the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act (CS&A) provisions were left unchanged, very little on the ground would change.
"But there would be a massive symbolic shift from viewing and treating abortion as the death of an unborn child to viewing and treating abortion as a matter of women's health alone. It would also no longer be a criminal offence to perform abortions outside the prescribed limits of the CS&A Act, which could expose women to unsafe and unsanitary abortion practices."
Family Planning NZ chief executive Jackie Edmond says while medical providers do a good job of making abortion as woman-friendly as possibly, there's still quite a process to navigate.
"The law is old and outdated. It wasn't written for modern-day health procedures."
Edmond says including abortion in the Crimes Act is morally and fundamentally wrong and danger to mental health should not be the only grounds for having an abortion.
"Imagine having a baby you don't want to have."
Edmond says there's no evidence internationally indicating decriminalisation increases abortion numbers.
"Most women have made that decision well before going to their health care provider … we believe women are smart human beings and given good information can make the decision themselves."
The organisation reports no other medical care where someone who is able to give informed consent requires two doctors to assess and approve it.
Abortion Rights Aoteroa (ALRANZ) says the country's current legal framework places the decision to terminate a pregnancy in the hands of doctors the pregnant person has likely never met before.
Kiwi women face a multi-step exercise involving GP visits, ultrasound, lab tests and sometimes, counselling before an abortion can be scheduled.
ALRANZ president Terry Bellamak says decriminalisation must include getting rid of certifying consultant approvals. The Abortion Supervisory Committee 2017 report states the Government spent nearly $4 million on certifying consultants for women considering abortion in the year ended 30 June 2017.
"The Law Commission has the opportunity to eliminate much of the time-consuming box-ticking exercise pregnant people must go through to access abortion by modernising the law," Bellamak says.
ALRANZ favours legislation similar to Canada's which does not regulate abortion to any greater extent than other similar medical procedures. There are no restrictions in Canada with respect to gestational limits.
"This is not a problem, because late term abortions are wanted pregnancies that went awry. Medical necessity is the driver."
ALRANZ commissioned a poll by Curia last year which found at least 70 per cent net support (i.e., those in favour less those against) support for the legality of abortion if the pregnant woman was likely to die; the foetus had no chance of survival or the pregnant woman was likely to be permanently harmed. Pregnancy as a result of rape had 65 per cent net support for legal abortion. Respondents over age 60 were less supportive of the legality of abortion than other age groups.
The Catholic Bishops' submission to the Law Commission says life begins at conception "... and embryos and foetuses are entitled to be granted a place in the human family and treated with the same respect as persons".
The Bishops oppose any change in the law which would "either lessen or, worse, totally remove the (limited) rights the current law accords to the unborn child".
In Tauranga, St Thomas Aquinas parish priest Father Mark Field says abortion is a crime against the most vulnerable in our society, the unborn child.
"The proposed change to make abortion a 'health issue' would totally overlook the rights of the unborn child, and would not necessarily benefit the health of the mother either," Fr Field says.
He believes removing abortion from the Crimes Act would make procuring the procedure "far too easy ... and would not encourage the mother (or parents) to think deeply about the enormity of their decision – and not to do something that they may regret weeks, months or even years later. Procuring an abortion is a moral decision, as it involves the ending of a human life – and, as such, legal protections for the child in the womb are vital."
Fewer Abortions in Aotearoa
The general abortion rate hit its lowest point in 25 years in 2016, according to the most recent data available from Statistics New Zealand. The highest annual number of abortions was 18,511 in 2003. Since 2010, the rate has fallen by about 23 per cent, from 16,630 in 2010 to 12,823 in 2016. During the same period, 1504 abortion requests were declined.
Abortion rates for younger women have fallen significantly in recent years. The rate for women aged 20-24 fell from a peak of 41 per 1000 women in 2003 to 21 per 1000 in 2016. The abortion rate for women aged 15-19 dropped from 26 per 1000 to 9 per 1000 over the same period.
Long-acting contraception is cited as one reason for the drop.
Fifty-seven per cent of abortions were performed before the 10th week of pregnancy in 2016. Most women having a termination that year (57 per cent) already had at least one child.
Back to Tania and Scott
The day of the procedure to terminate a 22-week old pregnancy where their unborn son had a malformed heart and slim chance of survival, Tania says a doctor using ultrasound found the baby's position and injected him with drugs to stop his heart.
"It worked instantly. My baby had died. He was still inside me."
Tania was given medication to prepare her body for labour and she and Scott drove home. She was booked to arrive at the local hospital two days later.
"It was ridiculously hard waiting for those days."
Labour was induced, and Tania says it was a mental struggle knowing she wouldn't deliver a bouncing baby boy.
"Once he was born he was handed to me and the room was silent. He was a beautiful boy."
Statistics show late-term abortions make up fewer than 1 per cent of terminations in New Zealand. The latest numbers available, from 2016, show 76 abortions occurred past the 20-week mark, while a total of 12,823 terminations happened that year. That's around .6 per cent. The same year saw 86 abortions performed on grounds of 'seriously handicapped child' (.7 per cent).
Scott says supporting Tania during this time is still very hard.
"Making the decision we made was harder ... Feeling like you're useless because the choice isn't just yours to make as it affects us both. We both felt like criminals for doing what we believed was right for our circumstances. That's the hardest thing to deal with and it will continue to be until something gets changed."
Tania agrees abortion should be removed from the Crimes Act.
"There needs to be checks and balances, but it is not always black and white. I don't want anyone to go through what we went through and if they do, I don't want them to feel like criminals for accessing necessary medical care and treatments."
Pregnancy Choice Centre
Janice Tetley-Jones says she's been involved in crisis pregnancy counselling about 27 years. The centre she runs on 11th Ave, called Pregnancy Choice, offers not just emotional support, but also free clothing, baby gear, household items and referrals to places like the Tauranga Food Bank for people in need.
"It's information and support to the woman with a crisis pregnancy. We fully inform her on her options. We believe it's a woman's right to choose what happens to her life but how can she make a wise choice where she's fully informed and supported and given all the information."
Tetley-Jones believes decriminalising abortion would make it easier for women to terminate pregnancies, opening the door to things like gender selection and maybe later-term abortions.
"I've never had one [woman] that wanted an abortion turned down or not been able to get it when they wanted. So I feel abortion is working fine now. I don't see anything that's restricting, stopping women getting the abortions they want."
The centre runs a 10-week programme called Living in Colour, to support women who've had abortions.
"It helps them process what's happened after the abortion, look at who was involved, how they're feeling about themselves ... we want them to be freer and able to move on," Tetley-Jones says.
Post Abortion Trauma Healing Service, or PATHS, also provides support for people after a termination.
Two other women speak out
Rachel was in the middle of community theatre rehearsals and thought she was entering menopause. Within weeks, the mother had packed 4kg on to her slender frame.
"I was 43 years old. I had half my cervix cut out; I'd had a prolapse after my second child."
Rachel didn't think pregnancy was possible. She went on a girls' weekend which she says involved camping, too much gin, social smoking and a pregnancy test her girlfriends bought as a joke.
"I found a red pen. I was going to trick them and say I was pregnant. I did the test and went, 'Oh my god'!" She was, in fact, pregnant.
Rachel saw six medical professionals and counsellors just to be sure, but says she and her husband already knew they wouldn't have another child. Their girls were at school and their family was complete. She says she was crying the morning of the termination before driving to Tokoroa with her mum.
Rachel expected to see a bunch of young, single women in the waiting room. "… there were four of us and every single one of them was well-to-do; they owned farms; we were all in the same situation, we all had kids."
Rachel says she had to see a counsellor before the procedure, but had already made her decision. She felt "complete relief" afterwards. She didn't want to be an older mother; she didn't want her daughters to be saddled with babysitting duties; she didn't want a big age gap between her children.
"If I was going to have a third child, I would've done them all together.
"Two or three years down the track, it was the best decision I ever made for my whole family. I have no regrets."
Rachel says the fact abortion is still in the Crimes Act is "totally ridiculous".
Emily says she was travelling overseas when she met a man from the UK and had unprotected sex. She returned to Tauranga in 2016. She was 24 years old, alone and living in a hostel when she learned she was pregnant.
Estranged from her family, she messaged her friends, but they weren't around to physically comfort her.
"The whole experience from the moment I found out I was pregnant was a total blur for me. I think it was too much to handle and carry on my own."
Emily says the father wanted her to keep the baby, but he was still in the UK.
"No one made me feel like keeping the baby would be something I could manage. When I went to talk to my doctor, they put that option forward [abortion], and my instant response was 'no'. I always said I'd never do something like that. But at the same time I thought I had no other options."
She agreed to end the pregnancy.
Emily says there was a lot of miscommunication surrounding the abortion, because she never received information from the hospital about how to prepare, possible side effects, and the option to bring a support person.
"I was told by my doctor to be at Thames Hospital by 9am."
Emily went alone and saw an array of professionals: a nurse, social worker, another nurse, a doctor … she believes none of them wanted her to change her mind.
"I feel angry at them for not being more thorough in the process. Not sending information, not calling me beforehand, and on the day not allowing me to express any sense of regret around the decision. They just wanted me to answer questions so they could tick off the box."
Emily herself says she would have continued the pregnancy and kept the baby if she'd had one supportive person at the time. She signed up for a post-abortion support group called Living in Colour, which she says has helped.
"You need people around you, good people who'll be with you and talk through some options."