Proposed abortion law disregards rights of unborn child

On Thursday 8 August 2019, Justice Minister Andrew Little presented a revised Abortion Bill to Parliament. The bill fulfils Labours’ 2017 election campaign intention to review abortion processes and practices and make them a health procedure. Later that evening, after various speeches from MPs, the House voted to send the bill through to a specially constituted Select Committee by a margin of 94‒23 votes. That Committee is now receiving submissions from the public; the closing date for submissions is Thursday 19 September 2019.

The present law allows for abortions to be legally performed up to 20 weeks only if the mother’s life would result in serious danger to the life, or to the physical or mental health, of the mother, and then only if the procedure is approved by two doctors. After 20 weeks, the test is more stringent – there must be good reason to believe that it is necessary to save the life of the woman or girl or to prevent serious permanent injury to her physical or mental health.

The proposed new law, if passed, will provide abortion ‘on demand’ for women up to 20 weeks gestation, no test for eligibility required – the decision becomes a matter between a woman and her consulting doctor. In the words of Andrew Little, ‘Safe abortion should be treated and regulated as a health issue; a woman has the right to choose what happens to her body.’

For pregnancies beyond 20 weeks, the revised law proposes ‘a medical test’. As quoted on the RNZ site: ‘…a health practitioner would need to determine that they reasonably believe the abortion is appropriate with regard to the pregnant woman’s physical and mental health, and wellbeing.’ This ‘test’ will undoubtedly make late-term abortions more accessible as it significantly lowers the bar for eligibility.

Under the proposed new regime, the Abortion Supervisory Committee would be disbanded, and oversight transferred to the Ministry of Health.

From a human and ethical point of view, the changes being signalled constitute a significant departure from the current law, enacted in 1977. Notwithstanding the way in which it may have been interpreted, the law as it stands provides for statutory protection of unborn human life, even though it qualifies this protection by balancing it against a pregnant woman’s right to seek a lawful abortion in certain medical circumstances.

That is, the current law embodies a ‘tension’ between the needs and desires of women and the rights of the foetus/unborn child and seeks to balance what are in effect seen as competing rights. The rights of the unborn child are evident in the longer title of the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act: ‘An Act…to provide for the circumstances and procedures under which abortions may be authorised after having full regard to the rights of the unborn child.’

“… the proposed revised law… basically removes the rights of the unborn child – rights which arise out of a shared humanity and which are inalienable.”

By making abortion solely a health issue that is a ‘reproductive choice’, the proposed revised law does away with this tension completely. In effect, there is no longer any requirement to consider the rights of the unborn child – it basically removes those rights, rights which arise out of a shared humanity and which are inalienable.

From a rights perspective, this new law is all about, and only about, the ‘right’ to an abortion.

Proponents of change have long used the line that the current law makes criminals of women who have an abortion as a reason for needing a law change. The claim is patently untrue because New Zealand law specifically states that women are not liable for prosecution under the Crimes Act for having an unauthorised abortion.

“While we resolutely advocate for the rights of unborn children, we must also keep to the fore the desperation that many parents find themselves in and seek to establish remedies.”

If we are going to have a robust debate about our abortion laws, we should be honest about what we are doing. That includes using language that acknowledges that a human life is at stake and that abortion, whatever one might think about it, is a procedure that ends a human life – full stop. There are always at least two human lives involved.

At the same time, it is important to acknowledge the human complexities associated with choosing an abortion. It is a fact that, too often, a woman has an abortion for reasons related to poverty, shame, lack of support and/or isolation. While, as Catholics, we must resolutely advocate for the rights of unborn children, we must also keep to the fore the desperation that many parents find themselves in when pregnant, and seek to provide better practical and emotional support.

It is a matter of recognising and upholding the dignity of all lives involved.

Dr John Kleinsman is Director of the New Zealand Catholic Bioethics Centre – The Nathaniel Centre, which is formally affiliated with The Catholic Institute of Aotearoa New Zealand – Te Pūtahi Katorika ki Aotearoa.


Abortion Legislation Bill

Express your view to Parliament – make a submission.

The Abortion Legislation Bill was introduced on 5 August 2019 and the first reading was on 8 August 2019. The bill is now before a specially constituted Abortion Legislation Select Committee. This committee is calling for public submissions on bill. The closing date for submissions is Thursday, 19 September 2019.

The new law, if passed, will provide abortion ‘on demand’ for women up to 20 weeks gestation, with no test for eligibility required – the decision becomes a matter between a woman and her consulting doctor. For pregnancies beyond 20 weeks, the revised law proposes ‘a medical test’: “… a health practitioner would need to determine that they reasonably believe the abortion is appropriate with regard to the pregnant woman’s physical and mental health, and wellbeing.” This ‘test’ will undoubtedly make late-term abortions more accessible as it significantly lowers the bar for eligibility.

Under the proposed new regime, the Abortion Supervisory Committee would be disbanded, and oversight transferred to the Ministry of Health.

For information on how to make a submission on this bill go to Parliament’s website: www.parliament.nz/en/pb/sc/make-a-submission/document/52SCAL_SCF_BILL_89814/abortion-legislation-bill

Published in WelCom September 2019

Have a question? We can help. Get in touch with the Diocese.

Have a question?