Increase in abortions recorded in New Zealand since procedure's decriminalisation

Warning: This article discusses the termination of pregnancies, including late-term abortions.

The number of abortions performed in New Zealand has increased since the procedure was removed from the Crimes Act in March - but one GP says it's too soon to determine whether the rise is solely related to its decriminalisation.

Figures obtained by Newshub show that between the end of March and the start of August, just over 4900 women underwent an abortion within 21 weeks of pregnancy. That's a rise of about nine percent, compared to the data recorded in the same window over the previous three years.

The number of abortions performed after the 21-week mark has stayed relatively consistent. Between March 24 and July 31, 2020, 26 women had a late-term abortion with an estimated duration of pregnancy of 21 weeks or more.  

Speaking to Newshub, Royal College of GPs' medical director, Dr Bryan Betty, said the reasons behind the increase are likely to be varied - noting that New Zealand's lockdowns in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic may have played a role.

He says it's too soon to tell whether the rise in abortions can be directly linked to the procedure being decriminalised. 

"It's really, really hard to say what's caused this jump at this point," he told Newshub.

Dr Betty was reluctant to speculate on the possible reasons behind the increase, noting that more data is needed to determine whether or not the jump is just a temporary deviation from the general trend.

"I think one set of figures or data like this - we do need to see a bit of a trend pick up what's actually happened here or [if it's] a blip," he said.

"We'd like to see how the data unfolds over the next few months."

Protesters campaign for abortion to removed from the Crimes Act in July 2019. The Abortion Legislation Bill passed its final reading in March.
Protesters campaign for abortion to removed from the Crimes Act in July 2019. The Abortion Legislation Bill passed its final reading in March. Photo credit: Newshub

He also expressed concern that some Kiwi women are still struggling to access contraception in low socio-economic areas, due to financial difficulties.

"[We know] across the country that some women do struggle to access contraceptive services because of cost barriers, especially in high deprivation areas," he told Newshub. 

"I think that's something the Government and the system needs to look at."

The focus should instead be on ensuring that Kiwi women are getting the care that they need.

"At the end of the day, we want women to have access to quality medical care, however that's done, so that is really the main thing that should be the focus of the system."

Abortion has not been classified as a crime in New Zealand after lawmakers voted to pass the Abortion Legislation Bill, the procedure officially removed from the Crimes Act in March.

For more than 40 years, abortion was the only medical procedure considered a crime in New Zealand. Women seeking an abortion previously had to use a loophole to make it legal. A patient would undergo a test by two medical practitioners, who would decide if the pregnancy would put the woman in physical or mental danger before allowing the abortion to proceed.

Under the Abortion Legislation Act 2020, abortion is available without restrictions to any woman who is not more than 20 weeks pregnant. 

After 20 weeks of pregnancy, a qualified health practitioner may only provide abortion services to a pregnant person if the health practitioner believes the abortion is clinically appropriate. The health practitioner must consult with at least one other health practitioner and consider legal, professional and ethical standards, the pregnant person’s physical health, mental health and overall well-being, and the gestational age of the foetus.

However, just 0.5 percent of abortions take place after 20 weeks - usually due to extreme complications.