by Jeff Fleischer(Women's eNews, September 23, 2008)
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND – New Zealand has joined the list of nations reviewing their abortion laws.
A recent court ruling, now under appeal, found the country’s abortion law is being interpreted too liberally. If the law is upheld it would force the government to rewrite its policies.
Unlike the United States, however, the issue isn’t stirring heated campaign interest. Neither Prime Minister Helen Clark of the Labour Party nor her main rival, John Key of the National Party, have weighed in on the appeals process, which could mark the first change in abortion law in 30 years.
“They have been worried about commenting before they understand what the ramifications of the ruling are, and this won’t be known until the appeals process has finished,” says Jackie Edmond, chief executive of Wellington-based New Zealand Family Planning. “I would imagine that they are not wanting abortion to become an election issue.”
Edmond said she was glad to see the issue kept out of the political ring. “Any public debate around changes needed to abortion law are best done when we have the time and commitment to focus on the needs of women, rather than in the heat of an election campaign,” she said.
The two-sided appeals battle doesn’t have a fixed end date, but will definitely come after the next election, in which Clark and her Labour Party face their longest re-election odds since coming to power in 2000.
Clark Behind in Polls
The most recent poll, released Sept. 15, showed National with 53 percent support compared to 35 percent for Labour in the multi-party system. Under the country’s parliamentary system, Clark chose the election date, Nov. 8.
As prime minister, Clark–who took office in 2000 as the country’s second consecutive female premier–has helped pass laws creating civil unions and parental leave. In 1989, as health minister, she tried unsuccessfully to simplify the approval process for abortion.
Key is generally credited with moving the National Party to the political center. He opposed the civil-union law, for instance, but also voted against a National-backed bill that unsuccessfully tried to amend the constitution to prevent same-sex marriage.
In response to a lawsuit filed this year by Right to Life–an advocacy group based in the city of Christchurch–Justice Forest Miller of the High Court undertook a judicial review of existing abortion rules, put in place to allow “restricted abortion” in a number of cases but not “abortion on-demand.”
In June, after completing the inquiry, he announced “powerful misgivings” about how the law is being followed by the Abortion Supervisory Committee, the organization set up to oversee the administration of abortion under a 1977 law.
“There is reason to doubt the lawfulness of many abortions authorized by certifying consultants,” Miller said in his decision, noting that 99 percent of women who seek abortions receive approval. “Indeed, the committee itself has stated that the law is being used more liberally than Parliament intended.”
Both Sides Join Appeal
Now the Abortion Advisory Committee is appealing the decision, saying abortions are being approved as the law intends. For its part, Right to Life is also appealing because Miller ruled that the existing law “neither confers nor recognizes a legal right to life for the unborn child,” which contradicts the group’s claim in its initial court filing.
In the wake of the ruling pro-choice groups generally sided with the committee, arguing that the law is being followed now. Activism has been fairly quiet so far, however, as groups wait to hear what the legal system decides before publicly making their next move.
If the appeals court upholds Miller’s decision in the coming months, the government would be forced to either enforce the law more strictly or–if it wanted to keep the process more liberal–to change the law for the first time in more than three decades.
The Center for Reproductive Rights, based in New York, lists five countries–the United States, Japan, Nicaragua, Hungary and the Russian Federation–that added restrictions to abortion since 2000, with Nicaragua removing all exceptions to its prior abortion ban. Seven countries have loosened restrictions in the past five years. Among them, for instance, Portugal now allows abortion for any reason in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy.
Countries such as Kenya and Zambia have closed clinics and eliminated staff due in part to the “global gag rule.” This policy prevents United States and Australia family-planning funds from going to foreign medical clinics that provide abortions, inform their patients about abortion or lobby to change their nation’s abortion laws.
Early Leader in Female Suffrage
New Zealand women won the right to vote in 1893, making it the first developed country to permit women’s suffrage. Women from both major parties have served as prime minister, starting with National’s Jenny Shipley in 1997.
Abortion, however, was slower to change, and its law grew out of compromise.
After the state of South Australia legalized the procedure in 1969 and many New Zealanders began going there to obtain the procedure, the country created a commission to look into changing its own laws. That led Parliament in 1977 to pass the Contraception, Sterilization and Abortion Act, a compromise bill that capped off heated debate.
The law did not permit women to access abortion freely, or “on demand.” Instead it legalized abortion in cases of incest, where the fetus is at risk of disability, when the life of the woman is in danger, or when the pregnancy risks the woman’s physical or mental health. (Other situations, including rape or the pregnancy of a minor, can also be considered.)
Under existing law an abortion must be approved by two doctors, at least one of whom must be an obstetrician or gynecologist. Doctors can require applicants to receive counseling before or after the procedure.
In the first year after the law took effect, New Zealand saw 2,094 legal abortions. By 2007, the number was 18,382, which fell short of the record 18,511 in 2003.
With a population of slightly above 4 million, the nation’s current rate of about 20 abortions per 1,000 women (aged 15 to 45) is slightly higher than that of the United States or Australia, and has generally hovered around those nations’ rates in the recent past.
Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based journalist. He has written regularly for publications such as Mother Jones, the Sydney Morning Herald, Mental Floss and Chicago magazine. He is a 2008 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow in Oceania.