Parliament debates abortion law reforms

Posted by nzherald.co.nz on Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Legislation liberalising abortions has overwhelmingly passed its first vote in Parliament.

A bill revising New Zealand's 42-year-old Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act passed its first reading in the House 94 votes to 23 on Thursday.

The biggest changes it proposes would see a current requirement for two doctors to have to approve an abortion on physical or mental health grounds dropped - in favour of letting women make the decision up to 20 weeks' pregnancy.

Later than that, one medical practioner would have to agree.

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MPs voted on the bill individually, rather than along party lines and the legislation will now go to a Select Committee, which will consider changes and public submissions.

The speeches

Speaking during the debate, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told the House she had wondered since she first became an MP in 2008 when the time would be right to have a debate about abortion.

"How long a journey it would have felt for many inside and outside the House for this day," she said.

"The time is right for us to put women's dignity and rights at the centre of this discussion."

She praised those who had worked to support abortion law reform, singling out former Labour MP Steve Chadwick for being a staunch supporter during Ardern's early years in Parliament.

"Why has it taken us so long? This is an issue that people feel deeply about, strongly about. Many hold personal views, many have personal experiences," she said.

"In spite of those personal views, who am I, who is this House to determine anyone else's reproductive rights?"

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Ardern said she had grown up in a religious household and respects people's rights to hold their views.

"But I draw a line when holding that view impedes on the rights of others."

She also slammed the current law that meant many women had to lie to get an abortion.

"If they do tell the truth, then technically under our law, they are a criminal. And I don't believe that is right ... [but] why take my word for it? Enough of us have heard enough stories," she said.

She read out a message from one woman who said that everyone in the current abortion process was "lovely", but the process was anything but as she had to repeatedly justify her wish for an abortion when all she wanted was for it to be over.

Ardern also noted Dame Margaret Sparrow, who said after her own 1956 abortion that she was a criminal and faced 7 years' jail if she had been charged.

She finished by quoting a letter, which said: "Give us our dignity back."


Judith Collins

National MP Judith Collins said the bill was not pro-abortion, but a "reality check".

"We women have dealt with it for generations," she said.

Collins described growing up in Matamata and seeing young women who got pregnant being sent away to have children, adopting them out and then returning to marry the fathers.

"What in God's name was anyone thinking?" she said.

"It also happened to girls who were sent away for an abortion, to Australia."

She also spoke of having a miscarriage while working on a trial as a lawyer.

"I had to go back the next day to finish the court case," she said.

Chris Penk

National MP Chris Penk opposed the bill, saying that an unborn child has a beating heart, unique DNA, independent movement, and is capable of feeling pain.

"If the unborn child is merely a collection of cells, then we are all merely a collection of cells."

He said the bill had no protections against the coercion of the mother-to-be, no restrictions on the method of abortion, and no requirement to notify the parents for pregnant women under the age of 16.

He added there had never been a criminal conviction for getting an abortion under the current law.

Justice Minister Andrew Little says the bill is firstly about taking abortion out of a criminal justice framework. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Justice Minister Andrew Little says the bill is firstly about taking abortion out of a criminal justice framework. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Andrew Little

Speaking, Little warned the coming public discussion about the laws would be emotive and often based on faith or deeply held, entrenched beliefs.

"We will hear extravagant language in the public debate referring to killing and murder. I reject those notions," Little said when introducing the bill.

He disagreed with opposition to abortion based on arguments of denial of life or a breach of human rights.

"I accept on legal and on moral grounds.. that human rights do not accrue until human life is possible," he said.

"I accept the born alive principle that guides our courts today."

Little said the bill was about taking abortion out of a criminal justice framework, putting it into health, and respecting a woman's right to choose and her ability to do so.

"It is wrong that in making that decision, a woman has to got through a set of processes that no other woman seeking medical procedures [has to] ... It is wrong that our present law characterises a decision a woman wishes to make as criminal."

Amy Adams

Lending her support to the bill, National MP Amy Adams described abortion as one of the most emotional and divisive of issues Parliament could consider.

She said she was prepared for the vitriol and attacks that would come.

"I have a strong view we should not shy away from that. We have an obligation from the people who elect us," she said.

"I will always stand strong for the right of women to control their own reproductive systems."

She rejected suggestions women would be using abortions are contraception.

"Not only do I not think this bill will lead to a fully of late-term abortions, I think it will lead to women getting help sooner, and with less trauma," she said.

"No woman should be compelled to continue with a pregnancy that is not right for her. We have to trust women."

Act Party leader David Seymour says the bill is the right thing to do both morally and practically. Photo / Michael Craig
Act Party leader David Seymour says the bill is the right thing to do both morally and practically. Photo / Michael Craig

David Seymour

Act leader David Seymour supported the bill as a crucial step forward.

But he said he preferred allowing a woman to make the choice to have an abortion in consultation with her health practitioner, rather than imposing an arbitrary 20-week rule.

He said opponents of the bill will happily cry out that they "love babies more and they are somehow more morally fit to have a view on this issue".

But the real issue is whether Parliament should support a legal prohibition on abortion, and prohibition was tantamount to saying that pregnant women can't be trusted with their decisions.

"It shouldn't take a great deal of thought to see how morally bankrupt that position is," Seymour said.

The bill was designed to remove the subterfuge that women employed to have an abortion under the current law, he said.

He added that the status quo also failed because services and options in major cities were very different to those in rural areas.

"Morally and practically, this bill is the right thing to do."


Tracey Martin

New Zealand First MP Tracey Martin said all nine New Zealand First MPs would be voting in favour of the bill in the first and second reading.

She was near tears at the start of her speech, speaking about someone she never knew called Beverly.

It was, however, a story for a different day, she said.

Martin said last week she had written a "very different" speech to the one she was giving today.

Instead, it was focused on the logistics of New Zealand First's position.

She said on Tuesday, the majority of NZ First's caucus voted that they wanted a referendum in the bill.

MP Darroch Ball will introduce a clause in the committee of the whole house – between the second and third reading – requesting any new law goes to a referendum.

Martin did not say what would happen if that clause fails.

Martin had been negotiating the bill with Justice Minister Andrew Little since December.

At no point since then had any one within NZ First raised the prospect of an abortion referendum, she said.

But the caucus decided and "the majority prevails".

David Parker

Labour MP David Parker supported the bill and said it was wrong for women to have to pretend to be mentally unwell to get an abortion under the current law.

He said he grew up in the 1970s and was a member of a church youth group, and his mother was part of the abortion law reform movement, meaning that he grew up listening to fierce debates.

"At the end of that debate, I came to a view that I still hold. It's a woman's right to choose. It is not the right of other women or other men to choose for that women not to have an abortion."

He said the debate about the bill should not be about a "right to life".

"We're actually having a debate as to whether the regulation of abortion in New Zealand should have this criminal overlay."

Parker agreed with Justice Minister Andrew Little that the current law was flawed because it forced women to "pretend" in order to get an abortion.

"I don't like a law that forces that pretence upon women. I don't like them having to maintain a fiction as to their mental health."

He agreed with an exclusion zone around abortion clinics to prevent women being "verbally assaulted".

Maureen Pugh

National list MP Maureen Pugh was the first to speak in opposition to the bill.

She said wanted MPs not to "turn abortions into quasi-contraception on demand".

Abortion was in the Crimes Act to protect woman and that to date, no woman have been prosecuted under the current law," he said.

Instead of Parliament debating abortion reform, Pugh said a better use of MPs time would be to talk about increasing access to cheaper contraception.

By changing abortion laws, New Zealand risked changing the "social structure" of the country, she said.

"This is huge and rapid social change."

Anne Tolley

National's Anne Tolley told the house she would be support the bill, but wanted the Select Committee to consider safeguards around later-term abortions.

She said she hoped the bill would improve access to services in rural areas.

"Should this bill proceed, and I hope it does, we should be looking to ensure that if you can have a baby practically anywhere ... you should be able to have a first trimester termination in a community setting," she said.

She described the current law as "archaic" and said women - many who would be traumatised by the experience - should not also be put under the burden of having to circumvent it.

National's House Gerry Brownlee has raised concerns the law could lead to gene-selection. Photo / Mark Mitchell
National's House Gerry Brownlee has raised concerns the law could lead to gene-selection. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Gerry Brownlee

National MP Gerry Brownlee told the House he would not support the bill.

He harked back to the time before the first abortion law was passed in 1977 and spoke about the damage done by "effectively back-street abortions".

Although he does not support the bill, he does not think any woman who gets an abortion should ever be labelled a criminal.

Brownlee spoke highly of single mothers and said if New Zealand had a better attitude towards young, single mothers, "perhaps this bill would not be necessary".

The bill opens the door to issues around gender and genetic selection, he said.

"Respect for human life should not be taken lightly," he said.

Jonathan Young

National's Jonathan Young said did not say which way he was going to vote in his speech.

But he said thoughts and compassion should be with any woman who has ever felt the "agony and trauma" of having an abortion.

He also said it was important that no woman should ever feel like a criminal.

But the bill goes further than just removing abortion from the Crimes Act – it takes away many limitations on abortion, currently in place under the current law.

Much of the opposition he, and most other MPs, received was from people in faith communities who perceived life was "given by a creator".

National Deputy Leader Paula Bennett says abortion should be treated as a health, not a crime issue.
National Deputy Leader Paula Bennett says abortion should be treated as a health, not a crime issue.

Paula Bennett

National Deputy Leader Paula Bennett received jeers from a person in Parliament's public gallery as she spoke about why she was supporting the bill in the first reading.

"A woman choosing not to carry out a pregnancy should not be a crime, in my opinion," she said.

There would be very few people in New Zealand who would not know someone who had been in a situation of an unwanted pregnancy, she said.

Bennett spoke about the trauma that some woman felt when they were going through an abortion.

It should be a health issue, not a criminal issue, she said.

"We should be supporting them [women] with legislation that does support them."

But any decision for a woman to carry out an abortion should be done with considerable thought.

She said more counselling needed to be made available for those to choose an abortion.

"In my mind, I do believe in a women's right to choose."

Labour's Aupito William Sio has supported the bill to hear the public's views during the Select Committee stage.
Labour's Aupito William Sio has supported the bill to hear the public's views during the Select Committee stage.

Aupito William Sio

Labour MP Aupito William Sio said he will vote in favour of the bill's first reading, but he is against abortion.

He wanted the details of the bill to be hammered out in the select committee process.

But for him, "life is to be valued and families are to be protected".

He said he was against abortion "as a father".

There was also a cultural element for Sio, a native Samoan.

He said Samoan culture values life and only God can "create or take a life".

"Why do we value life, because we need the next generation."

He said his heart goes out to every woman who has ever been forced to have an abortion.

Jo Hayes

National MP Jo Hayes said she was against the bill and wanted abortion to stay in the Crimes Act.

"I'm all for choice, but for me the most dangerous part of choice in this proposed legislation is a woman's choice for self-referral to abortion. It is a slippery slope," she said.

"What about the rights of the unborn? It seems, in this debate, they have none. So I advocate for the unborn child and children to give them a voice."

She said it was wrong to remove a penalty of imprisonment for those who have abortions, and the bill had "very little safeguards for the unborn child".

She questioned what would happen under the bill if a woman was coerced into having an abortion.

"When the father says to the woman, 'Get rid of the bloody kid or you can kiss us goodbye,' that's coercion. And this bill does not include coercion."

She echoed her National colleague Chris Penk is saying that the bill would allow "abortion on demand" for a pregnancy up to 20 weeks, and allow abortions right up until a baby is born.

"That's terrible," Hayes said.

Jan Logie

Green MP Jan Logie said while all eight Green MPs were voting on the conscience, they would all be voting in support of the bill.

When the party launched a campaign five years ago to take abortion out of the Crimes Act, the most common reaction was surprise that it was still in there.

She said the abortion laws had not been updated since 1970s, a time when milk was delivered in bottles at the end of the drive, and when God Defend New Zealand became the national anthem alongside God Save the Queen.

"It was a time when the law supported a man's right to sex with his wife regardless of whether she wanted it or not."

Logie said polls at the time had shown that 60 per cent of people had wanted the leave abortion to be up to woman.

But the will of the people had been undermined by conservative forces in the House which had only four women at the time.

"In some ways this is really a long delayed catch-up to ensure our legislation finally reflects the dominant values of our society and the jurisprudence."

National MP Agnes Loheni said abortion was about
National MP Agnes Loheni said abortion was about "termination of a life". Photo / Michael Craig

Agnes Loheni

National MP Agnes Loheni said abortion was about "termination of a life", and it was disingenuous and euphemistic to talk about the issue as a health issue.

Most abortions were wanted to avoid a negative impact on someone's lifestyle, such as an impediment to education or work ambitions, she said.

"If there's one thing I'm clear on, abortion is overwhelmingly not about a health issue. It is about impact on life.

"We should have the courage to admit that."

She said she was shocked to find that she was pregnant with her fifth child, having only wanted four, but she ended up with a "beautiful son" having had four daughters.

"I value human lives. It is core to who I am and a fundamental pillar of the principles that I stand for.

"Society places a high value on life, born and unborn. We should be wary of watering that down or losing that fundamental, innate human drive to protect human life, whether born or unborn."

She said an unborn baby was "not a cancer we are cutting out of our bodies", but one with its own unique DNA, heart beat and brain function.

"All mothers know that moment we find out we are pregnant, and our hands go instinctively and protectively to our stomachs."

She said the status quo protected mothers and their unborn, and she took exception to the idea that pro-life people were called archaic, medieval, uncaring or old fashioned.

While she was against the bill, she wanted more health resources for mothers who have undergone an abortion.

"It is a rare mother who takes the decision lightly. It is a hefty decision that can have lifelong consequences."

What next

The legislation - introduced on Monday - will now go to a special Select Committee to consider public submissions and changes.

That could be the start of a heated debate, with lobby groups on both sides already weighing in.

Anti-abortion groups, such as Family First, have described the changes are "radical" and have promised to fight tooth-and-nail.

And several MPs, including National's Chris Bishop, have in recent days been posting screenshots of their inboxes flooded with emails urging them to vote against the bill, some individuals calling them "Nazis" and "murderers".


Late-term abortions

Critics such as National's Penk earlier argued the bill would effectively allow abortion up to birth.

Little has called those claims "extremist", saying of the about 13,000 abortions carried out last year, only 57 were after 20 weeks and none near full gestation.

Abortion Providers Group Aotearoa New Zealand – made up of doctors, nurses, midwives and social workers – also said late abortions were very rare.

"Late second and third trimester abortions are events where continuing a pregnancy may lead to significant risk to maternal life or a mother having to birth her baby knowing she will have to watch him or her die," they said in a statement.

Meanwhile, advocates for reform, including the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand and Family Planning, say while they're pleased with change, they're disappointed a test is being kept for abortions after 20 weeks.

They've promised to put in a number of proposals in front of the Select Committee.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern defended not going further with the legislation earlier this week, saying it needed to get the votes to pass.

Referendum

While the bill went through extensive consultation with NZ First before being unveiled, the party blindsided Little by saying it would call for a referendum this week.

Little said the issue had never been raised with him and the first mention came on Tuesday after a meeting of NZ First's caucus.

NZ First leader Winston Peters on Thursday lashed out at Labour, saying it he that had been surprised, because the legislation was not in the Labour-New Zealand First coalition agreement.

Peters said it has long been his party's policy to seek a public mandate on conscience issues and no one should have been caught out by the move.

What the bill changes

Currently, women need clearance from two doctors on grounds of mental or physical risk from day one to get an abortion. After 20 weeks an abortion currently needs to save the life of the woman.

About 98 per cent of abortions are performed under the mental health clause.
The new law would mean there would be no legal test for earlier than 20 weeks.

Any later and the person performing the procedure will have to "reasonably believe the abortion is appropriate with regard to the pregnant woman's physical and mental health, and wellbeing".

Medical practitioners who didn't comply would face consequences from their medical bodies, rather than under the Crimes Act.

Other changes in the legislation include allowing for the introduction of 150-metre safe zones around clinics where people have been harassed and allowing women to self-refer to clinics.

It will still be illegal for an unqualified person to try to perform an abortion and causing the death of an unborn child by harming a pregnant woman will remain an offence.