How MPs voted on law change that would allow safe zones around abortion clinics

From freedom of speech concerns to the broad meaning of "communicating", a small group of MPs voted against a law that that would allow safe zones around abortion clinics. 

Labour MP Louisa Wall's Members' Bill provides a regulation-making power to set up safe areas around specific abortion facilities on a case-by-case basis. The legislation passed its first reading in Parliament this week in a conscience vote. 

"This isn't a freedom of expression issue," Wall said in her speech. "What we're saying is within a 150 metre zone of accessing a health service nobody has the right to question a woman's right to choose abortion."

National's new Botany MP Christopher Luxon, the former CEO of Air New Zealand, was one of 15 MPs to vote against it. Luxon didn't speak during the first reading, but the conservative Christian has previously voiced his opposition to abortion.  

National MP Chris Penk, who also voted against it, did speak. His primary concern was the broad use of the word "communicating" in the legislation, in relation to what would be prohibited in the abortion clinic safe zones. 

In the law the definition of "prohibited behaviour" includes communicating with, among other things, a person "in a manner that an ordinary reasonable person would know would cause emotional distress to a protected person". 

Penk said it "goes further than necessary" as it could lead to criminalisation of a "conversation that would be had, for example, in a car outside an abortion clinic by the father of the child".

National MP and former Air New Zealand CEO Christopher Luxon.
National MP and former Air New Zealand CEO Christopher Luxon. Photo credit: Getty
Labour MP Louisa Wall.
Labour MP Louisa Wall. Photo credit: Parliament TV

Attorney-General David Parker raised that very issue in his report. He said the definition of "prohibited behaviour" in the Bill "appears to be inconsistent with the right to freedom of expression" in the Bill of Rights.  

Parker said in Parliament he's received advice from officials on how to maintain the purpose of the Bill whilst not infringing the Bill of Rights Act. This could be added before the Bill goes to its second reading. 

National MP Michael Woodhouse also raised concerns about freedom of speech, but ended up voting in favour of the legislation. 

"This is a considerable conundrum for me, and the conundrum is this: if I feel so strongly about the rights of people to have their views and express those views, should I then oppose this Bill at first reading and prevent members of the public from coming to a select committee and doing just that?"

Labour MP Anahila Kanongata'a Suisuiki said while she finds images protesting abortions "traumatising" and having a "lasting effect", the legislation is an "erosion of freedom of expression", which is why she did not support it.  

National MP Nicola Grigg.
National MP Nicola Grigg. Photo credit: Parliament TV

National's spokesperson for women Nicola Grigg did support it, explaining how she felt a responsibility to be a role model for women who make the difficult decision. 

"I have been, frankly, disgusted in the past, running around Hagley Park where I have seen large groups of, at times, vocal, intimidating protestors shouting, chanting, and waving placards outside the Christchurch Women's Hospital," she said. 

"That is why I feel so strongly in favour of this Bill. If done right, it will create legislation that will create safe zones outside clinics and hospitals. If these safe zones can reduce harassment, hate speech, and intimidation that these kinds of protestors aim at these extremely vulnerable women, then that is the right thing to do."

Do abortion safe zones sound familiar?

Wall's Bill basically replicates a section that was removed from the Abortion Legislation Bill, which removed abortion from the Crimes Act in March last year.  

When the Bill had its second reading in Parliament, up for debate were 150-metre safe zones that could be established around abortion clinics on a case-by-case basis. 

But reformists were left fuming after politicians scrapped the creation of the safe zones because MPs were seemingly asleep at the wheel during a vote on it. 

ACT leader David Seymour.
ACT leader David Seymour. Photo credit: Parliament TV

  Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson attempted to introduce a new amendment that would have brought safe zones back into the Bill, but it was voted down.

ACT leader David Seymour led the charge against safe zones, saying while he broadly supported bringing abortion out of the Crimes Act, he held concerns about freedom of expression. 

Despite opposing it last time, Seymour voted in favour of Wall's legislation at its first reading this week, but he plans to vote against it if the 'prohibition on communication' implications are not fixed. 

"We want to see this Bill go to select committee and be properly examined," he said. "We're prepared to continue supporting it so long as we have that word "communicate" removed."