Justice Minister Andrew Little backs removing legal restrictions on abortions up to 22 weeks

Justice Minister Andrew Little has revealed which of the three suggested abortion reform options he'd prefer to see made law.

The Law Commission on Friday released the findings of its review into abortion law. Right now, a woman must say she is physically or mentally incapable of continuing the pregnancy, and get permission from two certifying consultants before an abortion is allowed.

"The whole legal framework around abortion, it is a crime in the first instance - and then providing an abortion is carried out in accordance with the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act, that is effectively a defence to the crime," Mr Little told Newshub Nation on Saturday.

"It attaches a pretty heavy stigma to a woman who is considering an abortion and taking advice about it, for her to think that she's committing a crime, but she just has to go through these hoops and she's okay. That's not a good starting point."

The Law Commission's three suggested replacement regimes are:

  • not requiring any statutory test, leaving the decision to the person seeking an abortion and health practitioners
  • requiring a statutory test and the health practitioner who intends to perform the abortion being satisfied the procedure is appropriate in the circumstances, considering the person's physical and mental health and wellbeing
  • not requiring a statutory test until 22 weeks of pregnancy. After 22 weeks the health practitioner intending to perform the abortion would need to be satisfied it is appropriate in the circumstances, after considering the person's    mental and physical wellbeing.

Mr Little says his preference is for the third option, but it's not clear what would happen if an abortion was carried out after the 22-week threshold without meeting the statutory requirements.

"If the threshold test is to have any meaning, there's got to be consequences," said Mr Little, adding that it could possibly be covered by existing laws or handled by professional medical bodies.

"If it's deliberately flouting the law… then there is resort to criminal law. It could be assault, it could be those standard, existing criminal offences that exist."

Andrew Little.
Andrew Little. Photo credit: Newshub Nation.

He said making women jump through hoops to get access to abortion services could result in delays, pushing the age of the foetus beyond the 22-week threshold.

Asked if the first option could result in women getting abortions for reasons such as gender preference, Mr Little said women are "quite capable of making these judgements themselves".

"I don't buy into this argument that we should start working through a checklist of potential things, reasons why women might seek an abortion. Everybody knows this is a sensitive issue. It's a difficult issue for women. We just have to have a law that reflects the fact that women can and should be trusted to make that decision, in consultation with their GP."

A majority of the submissions to the Law Commission were against taking abortion out of the Crimes Act - with only 18 percent in favour. Mr Little said it was misleading to assume this meant the majority of Kiwis were against reform.

"Just looking at raw numbers of submissions doesn't help. Some submissions were by organisations representing hundreds of people. If you look at a scientific opinion poll of the general public conducted by Family First, actually it showed there's a majority of support… the majority of New Zealanders support the idea of access to abortion. People do want it."

The abortion rate has been falling in New Zealand, and is currently at a 26-year low.

Mr Little says he can't predict whether legislation written up to take abortion out of the Crimes Act will pass, as it's a conscience vote and MPs don't have to follow party lines.

"In the end it will be the collective will of Parliament."

He has support from acting Acting Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paula Tesoriero however.

"This will mean that people are free to make choices in the best interests of their health, which is what we think is a paramount consideration," she told Newshub.

"We hope that the Government takes on board the advice from the Law Commission, and we look forward to hearing the Government's response."

Abortion law reformer Terry Bellamak of Abortion Law Reform Association NZ says reform has been a long time coming.

"It's going to eliminate a lot of the delay we see in the system right now because it takes time to get in to see your GP. It eliminates refusal to treat, so-called conscientious objection."

During consultation almost all health professionals supported having no test.