Sir Bill English accused of 'scaremongering' by abortion rights campaigner Dame Margaret Sparrow

Former Prime Minister Sir Bill English is being accused of "scaremongering" by abortion rights campaigner Dame Margaret Sparrow after he described abortion as "extreme violence".

Sir Bill submitted to the Abortion Legislation Committee, where he pushed back on proposed law changes that would decriminalise abortion, so women who are less than 20 weeks pregnant can have one without a test.

"This is abhorrent and I cannot believe the Parliament is contemplating this," Sir Bill told the committee on Wednesday. 

The legislation will allow for those over 20 weeks pregnant to have an abortion if one doctor says it's appropriate.

"This can happen to a 39 week fully viable sensate human being. It is extreme violence," Sir Bill said. 

Dame Margaret sees it differently, telling the committee she felt more hopeful than she had been for four decades.

"You have a golden opportunity to recommend removal of this offending legislation and I urge you to do so".

She said it's a matter of compassion, not violence.

Late-term abortions can happen under the current law, but they rarely do. Those that do take place are typically because of a serious fetal abnormality or risk to the mother's life.

Of the 13,282 abortions performed in 2018, 0.4 percent happened after 20 weeks of pregnancy, while 23 percent were performed before eight weeks.

"I think creating horror stories is disrespectful to those very few women who sadly, often for complicated medical reasons, have to have a termination," Dame Margaret said.

"I think it's scaremongering and I think the reality of abortion is very different to what some people imagine."

Dame Margaret's comments followed a heated interaction between Sir Bill and Green MP Jan Logie at the select committee over the "conscientious objection" clause in the proposed law.

Sir Bill argued the Bill opens the door to discrimination against employees, telling the committee it would allow DHBs that provide abortion services to pressure people to resign if they don't agree with them.

Logie, Parliamentary Under-Secretary to the Minister of Justice, argued that the legislation "has a reasonable mix of criteria around interference".

Sir Bill's wife, Dr Lady Mary English, also presented to the committee, and also engaged in a somewhat heated discussion with Logie.

Dr English described the legislation as "radical", and said the committee should "not endorse state coercion", presenting the same argument as her husband on employer rights.

Logie argued: "To my mind, what we're trying to do is find a balance, allowing conscientious objection, but also a right to healthcare."

The Abortion Legislation Committee will report back in February, after which MPs will cast a conscience vote.