Justice Minister Andrew Little announces proposed abortion law giving women 'right to choose'

The Justice Minister has announced legislation that would make abortion legal for women and be treated as a "health issue", but some activists say it's not enough. 

The legislation, which would make changes to the Crimes Act, proposes removing any statutory test from doctors for a woman who is not more than 20 weeks pregnant. 

Andrew Little, the Justice Minister, said it's "time for change", at the announcement on Monday at the Beehive in Wellington. 

"This Bill will modernise the laws on abortion, by removing it from the Crimes Act and bringing the law into line with many other developed countries."

He said safe abortion "should be treated and regulated as a health issue", and that a woman "has the right to choose what happens to her body".

As it currently stands, abortion is an offence under the Crimes Act, and women have to use a loophole to make it legal. 

Two medical practitioners have to agree the pregnancy would put the women in physical or mental danger to allow her to proceed with the abortion. 

Under the proposed law, a woman who is more than 20 weeks pregnant would require one doctor to believe the abortion is appropriate with regard to her physical and mental health, and well-being.

Doctors will also have to advise women of the availability of counselling services if they are considering an abortion or have had an abortion, although counselling will not be mandatory. 

Women will also have the right to be referred to a health practitioner who can provide the service, if her doctor objects on the grounds of conscience. 

It will remain an offence for unqualified people who attempt to provide abortions or supply the means for them. It will also still be illegal harm to a pregnant woman and in doing so cause the death of a fetus.

Oversight of abortion services would be transferred from the Abortion Supervisory Committee to the Ministry of Health, Little said. 

The proposals follow on from the Law Commission's report Alternative Approaches to Abortion Law, which gave three options on what a health approach to abortion could look like. 

  1. there's no test, the woman decides with her health practitioner
  2. there's a test and the woman would need to prove the abortion's appropriate
  3. there's only a test for later-term abortions - beyond 22 weeks

The Government has gone with none of the recommendations. It's chosen a more conservative version of the final option. 

The 20 week limit has been questioned by rights group Abortion Rights Aotearoa, whose national president Terry Bellamak suggested it could complicate things. 

"But why the 20 week limit? There are scans that happen around 20 weeks, and this gives people little time to consider those results."

She labelled the legislation a "mixed bag", but said it's "so much better than the status quo, [and] we have to give the Government props for that."

Family Planning chief executive Jackie Edmond also said the proposed approach "isn't what the broader health community, including Family Planning, recommended and is really a missed opportunity to put all women front and centre of the process". 

The draft law went through the Cabinet Committee last month, and the legislation will have its first reading on Thursday, when it will need at least 61 votes from MPs to pass.

It will be treated as a conscience issue, meaning Members of Parliament can cast their votes independently at each stage of the Bill's progression through.

"The Bill has been carefully considered and we will be proposing that Parliament establish a special Select Committee to hear the public's views," Little said. 

"It is now a matter for Parliament and the public."