The abortion reform law passed its first reading - but how did New Zealand get to this point?

On Thursday night, New Zealand took a historic step as the abortion reform bill passed its first reading in Parliament. 

So how did New Zealand get to this point?


Getting an abortion in New Zealand is illegal, unless two doctors agree the pregnancy would cause mental or physical harm to the mother.  

Nearly every time, it's the mental health box getting ticked. 

It's a technicality that has existed ever since a law reform in 1977 - and in a far more progressive 2019, it isn't sitting well with New Zealanders anymore.  

If the new legislation passes, abortions before 20 weeks will be treated like any other reproductive health service - meaning the patient can decide for herself - and won't have to plead insanity.

"It's a very personal decision and shouldn't be legislated by men at all," former National MP and author Marilyn Waring told The Project.

"We really have been living since 1977 with 19th Century laws," says Dr Margaret Sparrow, a reproductive rights advocate.

Before then, it was pretty grim to be a woman with an unwanted pregnancy in New Zealand.

"I did my own abortion in 1956 when it was illegal. It was a crime [met with] seven years in jail. There were chemists who provided mixtures... and I was lucky. In that year there were three women in New Zealand who died of a septic abortion," says Dr Sparrow.

The methods used in back-street abortions were stomach-churning. Doctors would sometimes amend death certificates to spare a family the shame.

In the 1960s, attitudes to sex, birth control and mothering began to shift, and women started to organise and mobilise with rallies and protests.

"In the '60s, women found it very difficult. A few were done in hospital but posed a serious risk to the woman's health," says Dr Sparrow.

When the current law reached Parliament in 1977, Marilyn Waring was one of only four women MPs, and received little support from her male colleagues. 

"From midnight onwards, men just disappeared from the house. Muldoon couldn't remember what he even voted on the next morning. 

"Throughout that morning, various grounds like extremes of age, fetal abnormality, rape or incest were thrown out as grounds for a termination," says Waring.

So what is the general consensus as of Thursday night?


"A lot of people understand we can do much better as a country," says National MP Nikki Kaye.

"We need to change the law to ensure we have a much more sensitive approach to what can be a traumatic situation for many women and couples."

Although the majority of Kiwis today want a more liberal law, its opponents remain outspoken, well-organised and backed by religious groups.

"I expect those who are working in New South Wales to protest liberalisation are now in New Zealand, and they are the same people who were in Mississippi," says Waring.

Now it's time for Parliament to decide which side they're on.

Newshub / The Project. 

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