Less than five months after abortion laws were updated and removed from the Crimes Act, they have made it back into political debate. The unsuspecting catalyst: a new podcast on the hundreds of parents and families whose babies are stillborn or die within a month of birth each year in New Zealand.
Support services (or lack of them) for these parents and families were up for discussion in an RNZ interview with the Prime Minister last week. Unsurprisingly, when asked whether they were adequate, she said: "I think there's more that we could be doing." The Prime Minister then provided examples of areas which could be improved.
I thought it was a pretty standard and predictable answer. However, that reaction was not shared by all - with National MP Harete Hipango providing an interesting take on the comments via Facebook.
Hipango stated: "For a PM who supports abortion to full term (yes that's right, a full-term baby up until birth can be aborted - and for those who denounce and decry saying nonsense it would never occur, the fact is this PM supported this law being made - it is lawful, whether or not it is utilised) and other atrocious unnecessary violations of a human life in utero in amendments to the Abortion Act (where abortion has for decades in NZ been lawful and treated as a health issue)."
I'm not too fazed about the contempt Hipango expresses for the Prime Minister but I do take issue with her framing of March's abortion legislation changes. On this issue, we all have our own views, however elected policymakers should take extra care and responsibility in how they contribute to the debate. One of the key questions must be: "Is what I'm adding fair and helpful?" Here, a bit of research and evidence-based reasoning never goes awry. Let's use it to put Hipango's post in context.
A 'full-term baby up until birth can be aborted' under new abortion laws which the Prime Minister supports
Hipango is correct that Jacinda Ardern voted in favour of new abortion laws. It was a conscience vote, so MPs did not vote along party lines. Notably, at each stage of the reform bill, the tally for and against it changed. Ultimately, 68 MPs voted in its favour, and 51 opposed. Importantly, a vote in favour of change did not equate to support of so-called "full-term abortion". In fact, under both current and previous abortion laws, only two time periods are mentioned - that is the first 20 weeks of pregnancy and after the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. Different requirements are prescribed for abortions in those time frames. Previously, this was set out in the Crimes Act, and the person performing an abortion after the first 20 weeks of pregnancy had to believe it was necessary to save the life of the woman or prevent serious, permanent injury to her physical or mental health. Now, the Abortion Legislation Act sets out grounds for abortion. After 20 weeks of pregnancy, a qualified health practitioner must find the abortion "clinically appropriate" and consider the woman's physical and mental health, and wellbeing to proceed. A second practitioner must also be consulted.
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Late-term abortion 'is lawful, whether or not it is utilised'
Again, Hipango is correct on this point - however, her framing of the issue is completely unhelpful and dramatically oversimplifies what happens. As outlined previously, the law sets out different circumstances for abortions in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, and after that. More useful is a breakdown of the numbers from Stats NZ. In 2017, 89.4 per cent of abortions occurred in the first trimester of pregnancy. A further 8.3 per cent of abortions occurred in weeks 13 to 16, and 1.7 per cent occurred in weeks 17 to 20 weeks. Just 0.5 per cent occurred after 20 weeks. Context can be found in work by the Law Commission on abortion reform. It noted that health practitioners and the recently disestablished Government Abortion Supervisory Committee reported "virtually all abortions performed after 20 weeks relate to wanted pregnancies and occur because a serious fetal abnormality is detected or there is a serious risk to the woman's life or physical health".
Abortion has 'been lawful and treated as a health issue' for decades
Half right. In 1977, the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act established the legal framework for abortion. It made it possible for women to seek the procedure as long as the grounds for it - set in the Crimes Act - were met. However, that did not equate to abortion being treated as a health issue under those laws. First, medical and surgical procedures do not generally get a special category of a criminal offence. Second, other health procedures do not require sign-off from two certifying doctors to proceed. Those factors have been critical to this year's law changes - moving abortion away from the Crimes Act and towards a more health-oriented framework.
I believe it was an important step in the right direction. Linked to it is the discussion of connected issues. Regardless of your personal views, that debate deserves correct and fair framing – particularly from an MP.