Verity Johnson: I'm embarrassed NZ's abortion laws are so archaic

Abortion laws in NZ need updating.
Abortion laws in NZ need updating.

OPINION: How is it in 2017 that our abortion laws are so archaic?

Grimly gut-wrenching abortion stories filter through the media almost constantly.

They vary from the deeply tragic, such as the recent pregnant Irish minor who was told she was getting an abortion when she was actually being transferred to a psychiatric unit - and rise right up to the overtly nauseating, like the newly introduced law in Texas requiring foetuses to be cremated or buried, instead of being disposed of as medical waste as they are currently.

We often associate these painful stories with being an overseas problem. We have a smugly apathetic, "Ahhhh abortion struggles are for less liberal countries. Step forward, America. We're cool here."

We're not cool here. While the worst of the cases are often overseas, we have some major work to do with our own abortion laws. On that note, it's not just our abortion laws; we're far too comfy in New Zealand with our attitude towards women, refugees and indigenous rights. We largely just wave away swathes of problems with, "ah we were the first country to give women the vote… ah we do enough already, well at least we’re better than Australia". But that's a whole other column.

The first, fairly major point is that it’s still legally a crime to get an abortion. Abortion is currently under the Crimes Act, covered in the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act of 1977, and so the Abortion Supervisory Committee that oversees it is currently reporting to the Ministry of Justice.

No, you can't be arrested for getting an abortion. There's an exception to the law where it’s permitted in 10 instances including incest, risk to the mother's physical and mental health, and risk of severe child disability. There's nothing about rape. If you're covered under this, and 99 percent of the time you are, then you can get one after having two certified consultants approve it. But it's still technically a crime.

Why? Why in God's name do we still have this? Getting an abortion is not a crime. It's a matter of women's health and bodily autonomy a.k.a. that women hold the rights to do whatever they damn well want with their own bodies.  

As long as it remains a crime it remains a symbol of shame for Kiwi women getting an abortion.

I know that people will argue that it doesn't really matter as the current system works fine, and ultimately you can still get an abortion. You can still get an abortion, given the proper processes, so why do we need to change it? There's also a strange correlation between the types of people who make this argument and people who've never had an abortion.

Well, yes, it is currently adequate. But that's not to say it's good enough.

The fact that it is still legally a crime makes it a big deal. Maybe not to people who've never had one. But if you're trying to get one, then you're probably already in a huge emotionally tumultuous state. You do not need the extra feelings of guilt and shame attached to the idea of breaking the law.

You're probably already in a position where you're the target of unnecessary judgement and unwanted opinions. You do not need any more condemnation.

And this emotional stigma is already on top of a system that is already hard to access in rural areas and also needlessly bureaucratic.

Why is it such a moral and physical mission for women to get an abortion? It's not a crime, it's not something to be ashamed of, and it's not something we should even still be debating. We need a clean, effective, hassle-free, guilt-free and stigma-free system that supplies abortion to women when they need it. That's it. That's all of it.

Verity Johnson is a Newshub columnist.