OPINION: In New Zealand, some people think we have it pretty good when it comes to abortion access. But with abortion still in the Crimes Act and other people getting to decide whether pregnant people can terminate, we really have no reason to feel safe. Abortion Law Reform New Zealand president Terry Bellamak writes.
Today is International Safe Abortion Day. It's a day when we celebrate those places where abortion is safe, legal, and accessible, and mourn those places where pregnant people still have to get abortion medications over the internet, risk their lives sourcing abortions outside the health system, or face unfounded prosecutions when they miscarry spontaneously.
- Helen Clark wants abortion removed from Crimes Act
- Simon Bridges: Abortion should be rare, safe and legal
Here in New Zealand, we celebrate by congratulating ourselves that no one has died from an unsafe abortion in a very long time. But don't look too closely because you might notice the pointless legal barriers we place in the path of those seeking safe, routine health care.
To access abortion, the current law requires pregnant people to get the approval of two certifying consultants who might only approve if the pregnant person satisfies the grounds in the Crimes Act. These grounds include physical or mental harm, incest, a foetus that would be 'seriously handicapped', or a mother who is 'severely subnormal'. Neither rape nor age is a ground, but they may be taken into consideration.
It's hard to feel safe when the decision lies in the hands of a doctor you've never met, and you know that sometimes, pregnant people are refused abortions. When it's your own unwanted pregnancy, and the consequences of refusal are lifelong, even favourable statistics are cold comfort.
Currently, three of the biggest barriers to abortion care in New Zealand are lack of accessibility, poor integration of medical abortions, and delay in accessing care. All three originate from our antiquated abortion law. These unnecessary barriers make it difficult to deliver the safest and best medical care to people who need abortions.
Delay is arguably the worst part of getting an abortion in New Zealand. Most of this delay comes from the complicated process of referral. You must seek referral through your GP or Family Planning. Then the legal requirement is that a pregnant person must obtain the approval of two certifying consultants. They must decide whether the abortion satisfies the legal grounds, and the proper boxes are ticked so that everyone stays within the law.
The grounds must be done away with. The fact that 97% of abortions are granted on the dubious mental health ground captures its inherent absurdity. Any reason for an abortion is a good reason because there's no good reason to force a person to remain pregnant against their wishes.
People must also be able to self-refer to an abortion service because abortion is a time-sensitive process – the earlier the abortion, the safer and better for the person seeking it.
In February the Minister of Justice, Andrew Little, asked the Law Commission to undertake a review of New Zealand's abortion laws in order to transform abortion from a criminal matter to a health matter. It's a big job, but it's absolutely needed. It's been needed for a very long time.
Recently, I ran into an acquaintance of some years. She asked what I'd been up to, so I told her about ALRANZ –Abortion Law Reform New Zealand. Then she told me a story she had never told anyone before.
Back in 1976, before the current legal regime was passed, my friend – let's call her 'Julie' – had an abortion. She was young, she had a child already, her abusive marriage was on the rocks, and the pregnancy was the result of an affair. Her husband threw her out when he learned about it.
When home remedies failed, Julie knew she would have to face the hospital's abortion committee. This added to the weight of dread, self-blame, and despair she was already feeling.
The committee's job was to decide whether Julie could have an abortion.
Three male doctors made up the committee. They treated Julie like a misbehaving child. She explained her situation to these men as best she could. Julie particularly remembers one of them, who made a tent with his fingers and said he wasn't convinced.
Her voice shook as the story burst forth after years of holding it inside.
In the end, she got her abortion.
Julie's abortion was medically safe. She was never at serious risk of infection or complication.
But even after more than 40 years, she still did not feel safe.
The New Zealand health system manages medical safety pretty well. But what about the other kind of safety? What about not feeling judged or stigmatised?
In that area, New Zealand isn't there yet.
Pregnant people still have to get the approval of certifying consultants, and, in most cases, have to lie to them about their mental state to justify their abortions. Because we still cannot decide for ourselves whether to receive abortion care.
How safe can you feel when you have to lie to a doctor in order to get health care?
This year, on International Safe Abortion Day, let's hold off on the congratulations. We'll see about next year.
Terry Bellamak is the national president of ALRANZ Abortion Law Reform New Zealand.