Jacinda Ardern. Photo: Mark Tantrum/Getty Images

Abortion law reform just leapt its first hurdle. Here’s what the MPs said

Yesterday the NZ parliament passed the Abortion Legislation Bill by 94 to 23 in a conscience vote. Below, a selection of abridged speeches from the first reading

Andrew Little (Labour)

Around 13,200 abortions are carried out in New Zealand each year under our current law. Under that law, when a woman seeks an abortion, she is in the first instance committing a criminal act. Women seeking an abortion have a defence to the crime if they comply with the requirements of the Crimes Act and the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act 1977. Complying with the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act requires a woman to obtain the approval of two, or possibly three, certifying consultants, usually after consulting her GP. Those consultants must be satisfied, among other things, that continuing the pregnancy would result in serious danger to the physical or mental health of the woman. There are other grounds, but this is the most commonly relied upon ground. That is the test if the abortion is to happen in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. After 20 weeks, the test is that the abortion must be necessary to save the life of the woman or to prevent serious permanent injury to her physical or mental health.

The requirements of the 1977 Act are onerous and bureaucratic and, for most women, securing an abortion requires them to maintain a fiction about their mental health. In my view, it is wrong that our present law characterises a decision that a woman wishes to make about her own body and her reproductive choices as criminal, and it is wrong that, in making that decision, a woman has to go through a set of processes that no other person seeking a medical procedure has to go through. My Abortion Legislation Bill seeks to change this. The primary objective of the bill is to shift abortion out of the criminal law framework, in which it sits at the moment, and place it in a health framework, where it properly belongs. In the end, the bill is not only about confirming the right of a woman to choose whether she proceeds with a pregnancy but also about respecting her ability to do so.

Much of the contribution to the public debate about abortion will come from people who, because of their faith or other deeply held views, are opposed to abortion at all. Some regard it as a denial of life or a breach of human rights, and we will hear extravagant language in the public debate about this referring to “killing” and “murder”. I reject those notions. I accept on legal and moral grounds the established jurisprudence in New Zealand that human rights do not accrue until human life is possible, and that the widely accepted human rights that we all understand apply when they are capable of being exercised, which is to say I accept the “born alive” principle that guides our courts today. But it is for these reasons also, however, that I believe foetal viability is a relevant consideration in setting up a legal framework for abortions and that a gestational threshold at which different considerations apply is appropriate as a matter of public policy.

The principle features of the bill are these: firstly, the bill shifts the law about abortion from the criminal context to a health context. Next, it says that for abortions up to 20 weeks of pregnancy, the decision on whether or not to have an abortion is for the woman concerned, in consultation with her health professional. After 20 weeks, a health professional carrying out an abortion must be satisfied that it is appropriate in light of the woman’s physical and mental health and her wellbeing. Next, there will be no need for certifying consultants. One benefit of this is that whereas at the moment abortions in New Zealand are on average later in the pregnancy than other comparable countries, this will mean that New Zealand women can get access to services earlier and that will be safer for them.

Next, it will continue to be mandatory for health professionals to offer counselling for women, but it will not be mandatory for a woman seeking an abortion to have counselling. Next, women will be able to self-refer to abortion services. Next, health practitioners who have a conscientious objection to providing advice on abortion or administering an abortion must refer a woman to the Ministry of Health, who will provide advice to that woman on how relevant services can be obtained.

Next, there will be a regulation-making power for the Minister of Health to establish safe zones around clinics if there is a need to do so. Members will be aware that the Law Commission report on which this bill is based was somewhat indifferent about whether or not safe zones needed to be established, but I, through correspondence, have seen evidence that suggests that at least in some places, it may well be a device that needs to be called upon.

Finally in this regard, the Abortion Supervisory Committee will go, and oversight of the abortion regime will be the responsibility of the Ministry of Health and also the professional bodies to which health professionals belong. It should be remembered, too, that we have health legislation, such as the New Zealand Public Health and Disability Act and the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act, that did not exist in 1977 when the last abortion law was created.

What crimes do remain on our statute books will relate to abortions being carried out by unauthorised health professionals or those who claim to be health professionals but are not authorised to carry out abortions. The other crime that will remain on the statute books effectively deals with assaults on pregnant women who as a result of that assault lose their pregnancy.

Jan Logie (Greens)

For the Green Party, all of us—we’re voting on our conscience, but that happens to take a shared position, and that is a position of wanting pregnant people to be able to access the best possible medical care that, of course, trusts them to know what’s best for them and their families.

On one level, I recognise the profound importance of this day for many New Zealanders. Around 30% of New Zealand women have had to jump through multiple hoops, created by our abortion laws, to be able to access fundamental healthcare services. Some women in this country have been denied abortions when that was their preference for their life. Too many women and people live with a sense of quiet stigma created not by their choices but by the sense of social opprobrium created by our laws. Women have at times been made to feel like criminals. And there is a reason abortion rights have been so central to campaigns for women’s equality.

But in some ways, actually today it’s not such a big deal. In some ways, this is really a long delayed catch-up to ensure our legislation finally reflects the dominant values of our society and the jurisprudence. We haven’t updated these laws since the 70s – the 70s, when “God Defend New Zealand” was made our second national anthem alongside “God Save the Queen, a time when almost every household got milk in a glass bottle at the end of their drive, a time when it was OK to refer to people as “seriously handicapped” and “severely subnormal”, as the original legislation does before the Human Rights Act, before medical abortion was even available. It was a time when the law supported a man’s right to sex with his wife regardless of whether she wanted it or not, a time when men were also legally sanctioned to administer moderate physical correction to their wives.

Despite women being able to be members of parliament, it was clear by our laws that women were not considered equal or fully trustworthy. So a law that listed conditions on when and how a woman could access healthcare made sense in that legal context. Yet the 70s was also a time when, despite that legal context, polls consistently showed over 65% of New Zealanders favoured either the woman alone or the woman and her doctor having the right to choose – in the 1970s. The will of the people however was undermined by conservative forces in this House, which only had four women present at the time.

This law reform that’s being, I hope, started rolling today will not profoundly change our society except to the extent it removes significant disparities in access to healthcare between rural and urban areas, between low- and high – socioeconomic communities, and it may enable good medical practice.

I want to acknowledge that there are some deeply held feelings in this debate for many people and they are valid, but the right to my belief and other people’s right to their views and my willingness to fight for them to be protected from any forced action is the same instinct that has me fight to protect the bodily autonomy of pregnant people who want to end their pregnancy. I don’t believe in this House I can have any sense of what is going on in their lives and the consequences of bearing a pregnancy to term against their will. It is not for me to make that decision; I believe we need in this House to trust them to do it.

Jo Hayes (National)

I was brought up with values that a woman’s body is tapu and should be respected that way always—where her body is referred to as whare tangata: the sacred house, where we are conceived, where we are nurtured, and where we are born from. Where the generations of whānau that stem from whare tangata, and when we grow too old to be able to carry on with having children, that our sons and our daughters will be able to carry on our blood, our name, our whakapapa through our mokopuna. Where the hongi tells of the act where the god Tāne breathed life into his clay-moulded woman Hineahuone, and she came to life and became his wife and bore his children: the sanctity of life immemorial.

All of these acts of preserving the tapu of women, yet today that seems irrelevant and it’s sad. We have heard and will continue to hear that women have a choice. Believe me, I’m all for choice. But, for me, the most dangerous part of choice in this proposed legislation is a woman’s choice to self-referral for an abortion. To me it is a slippery slope, and one we need to be very, very careful of, should this bill go through.

The changes in this bill mean that abortion, for me, will be on demand for 20 weeks. And after 20 weeks, the abortion can be performed on the foetus up until it has been fully born. That’s terrible. So what about the rights of the unborn? It seems in this debate they have none. So I, like some of my colleagues, advocate for the unborn child and for children, to give them the voice.

Tracey Martin (NZ First)

I had a very different speech written for this bill as of Tuesday morning. In my original speech, I would have opened by acknowledging that there were a variety of views in our caucus—which is true. I was going to make it very, very clear that I was speaking for myself. I was going to speak to my personal reasons about why I would have been voting in favour of this legislation.

I was going to speak about Beverley Williams, my mother’s birth mother. I’ve talked about Beverley in this House before. We never knew Beverley. My mother doesn’t really remember Beverley. Beverley left her two-year-old daughter and five-year-old son in 1943. It took well into the 1980s for us to find out what happened to her. But that story will have to wait, because, as often happens in this place, events have moved on, and so this speech must change.

Today, I rise as the New Zealand First spokesperson for women to speak on the Abortion Legislation Bill. For close to a decade now, my New Zealand First colleagues have been happy with my representing them around issues that affect predominantly women or women only, things from forced marriage to pay equity. So, despite their diversity of views on this issue, my colleagues delegated me to work with Andrew Little to produce a Cabinet paper and the bill that has come into this House. However, I also need to make it clear that this topic is not part and was never part of New Zealand First and Labour’s coalition agreement. There was no negotiation prior to the formation of Government on this issue.

In recent days, there have been some questions in the public domain around the time frames of New Zealand First’s actions and who knew what and when, and I would like to provide some clarity around that now. I first met with Minister Little to discuss abortion law reform in December 2018. In the months that followed, the minister and I, with our advisers, met on several occasions to get to a place of comfort that we had a Cabinet paper and then a bill that reflected a desire by some to shift a woman’s voluntary choice to terminate a pregnancy out of the Crimes Act and into the health Act. I did my best to ensure that I removed my personal view and followed the instructions of my caucus.

I reported back to the New Zealand First caucus a number of times over those months around progress. At no time during those negotiations did the New Zealand First caucus raise the issue of a referendum clause or instruct me to raise that topic with Minister Little, and so at no time over those months did I raise it with him.

On the afternoon of Monday, 5 August, I did a pre-recorded interview with Jo Moir of RNZ. Ms Moir asked several questions around the process followed by myself and the New Zealand First caucus. She posed a question regarding a referendum clause, and I answered honestly, as I am wont to do. That interview was played the following morning, Tuesday 6 August, and it included my comments regarding a referendum clause.

There are some who believe I work in a dictatorship. They could not be further from the truth. Any New Zealand First MP can raise an issue at our caucus and seek majority support for a position on that issue. At the New Zealand First caucus meeting which began at 10.30am on Tuesday, 6 August, a member of the New Zealand First caucus requested that they put forward a Supplementary Order Paper to insert a referendum clause into the legislation, in line with the New Zealand First historical position on this issue. He received majority support from the caucus. This is how democracy works: the majority prevails, while the minority have the right to their views without persecution.

At that meeting, the New Zealand First caucus resolved that they would cast nine votes in favour of the Abortion Legislation Bill at both the first reading and the second reading and introduce a Supplementary Order Paper 292 in the name of Darroch Ball for consideration at the committee of the whole House.

At the conclusion of the caucus, approximately midday on Tuesday the 6th, I informed the prime minister, the prime minister’s chief of staff, and the minister of finance of the New Zealand First caucus position. At approximately 1 pm on Tuesday 6 August I personally informed Minister Little and his advisers of the New Zealand First caucus decision and apologised to him for the lateness of this development.

Already today, I have heard incredibly constructive suggestions come from members from both sides of this debate that I believe should be considered by the select committee to make sure that if and when we come to a final place on this legislation, it is the best we can do for New Zealand women. Many governments have not been brave enough to take this topic on. This government is. This Parliament is. The law relating to abortion is over 40 years old. It is time for it to be discussed and to be reviewed.

Amy Adams (National)

We have a long history of women’s reproductive systems being subject to the control of the state, of laws, and of men. I do not accept laws which work on the fallacy that somehow women are these fickle creatures who won’t make good, careful, thoughtful decisions, and I do not accept the argument that, somehow, if we change the abortion laws, women are going to be waiting till much later in their pregnancies, using this as some form of contraceptive, and treating this with anything less than the incredibly fulsome attention in recognising it as one of the most difficult decisions they will make in their life, as they do now.

Not only do I not think this bill will lead to a flurry of late-term abortions; I think this bill will lead to women getting the help they need sooner, with less trauma, and in a way that is far less difficult for them to go through. I think women are not served well by the current law. I don’t agree with the comments we’ve heard in the House today that there’s no problem to solve and that this is just a process tidy-up. Women are missing out on the support and the help that they need—not in every case, but I certainly have heard enough stories, both from constituents, from emails, and from people I know, to know that the law has been failing some women. Women currently are put into the position of having to lie and create fictions and rely on some issue of mental instability to get the help they need, and that is not OK.

No woman should be compelled to continue with a pregnancy that isn’t right for her, and I don’t believe as lawmakers it’s our job to set out exactly what medical assistance is right for which women, in which time. I think we have to trust women. I think we have to respect that women know very well how difficult these issues are and that they know what is right for them.

I don’t accept the argument that women, in the majority, go on to regret these decisions, and, in fact, the studies done from the Turnaway Study tell us that that’s not the case. If you want to talk about supporting women, you don’t force a woman to continue with a pregnancy that isn’t right for her. So I will absolutely support this legislation today but, having said that, I do acknowledge that there are issues that have been validly raised today that I think the select committee can and should look properly at, and I will go into the process with a commitment to do everything I can to make this the best law I can for New Zealand women.

Jacinda Ardern (Labour)

I’ve been in this parliament for 10 years and even I have memory, as a brand-new MP, sitting in a room with other female members of parliament from the Labour Party discussing whether or not we thought the time was finally right for this debate. I reflect on how many other women from all over this Parliament will, at various times, have questioned whether or not the time was finally right. Well, to those women who may not be in this House this day to see this debate finally arrive, or, indeed, to those advocates who have been outside of this House studiously working, and seeking support for there just to be the chance to have this vote, I want to commit this debate today to your work and your advocacy.

Why has it taken us so long, though, to be in this Chamber this day? Well, this is an issue that people feel deeply about, they feel strongly about. Many hold personal views; many have personal experiences. I am one who takes a very simple perspective: that in spite of those personal views, who am I, who is this House, to determine anyone else’s reproductive rights? So, in my view, you can have a deeply held personal view – and, in fact, it can be deeply entrenched and religious; I myself grew up in a religious household – and I will defend, always, your right to hold that view, but I will draw a line when holding that view then impedes on the rights of others. Currently, it does impede on the rights of others. It is not a legal act for women to tell the truth when they seek an abortion in New Zealand. I’ll say that again: women feel like they have to lie to legally access an abortion in New Zealand. I don’t think we should be dismissive of that. If they do tell the truth, then technically, under our law, they are a criminal, and I don’t believe that that is right. I fundamentally disagree with that.

But why take my word for it? Enough of us have heard enough stories, and, indeed, some of the letters that I’ve received since this debate has started I have found completely compelling, including the woman who wrote this to me: “Everyone in the process was lovely, but the process was not lovely. I had to tell my story over and over. All I wanted was for it to be over, but I had to go through multiple appointments, rounds of judgment, and justifications from strangers. It made a hard time considerably harder. I had no doubts, no second thoughts, but plenty of guilt and a lot of shame.” Of course, Margaret Sparrow put it best when she said, after her own abortion in 1956, “I was a criminal. I’d committed a crime, and if I’d been charged, I would’ve faced up to seven years in jail.” The time is right for this debate. The time is right for us to finally put women’s dignity and their rights at the centre of this discussion, and I ask as we do so that we do so with dignity.

I finish with, again, the words of someone who wrote to me only recently: “It’s time to change New Zealand’s outdated abortion laws. Please show us your respect for women. Show us you recognise we’re capable of deciding what’s right for us. Give us our dignity back.”

Judith Collins (National)

I will be supporting this bill, and I will be supporting it not because I am pro-abortion but because I understand the reality of life for many women. I also understand that if I was an 18-year-old kid going off to university and became pregnant, then I would be, exactly, thinking about that. I think that that is something that I should – when I approach conscience votes, I try to say, like many of us do, “How would I behave?” And I think that I would want to know that I had options in life.

I was never placed in that position—I was never in that position—and so I do speak from a position of privilege when it comes to this debate. My mother, though, had pre-eclampsia and was, you know, almost dead from my sister before me, and when she was pregnant with me at the age of 39, and I was her sixth child, the doctors recommended an abortion. Many years later, people have thought that they should have gone with that option. But I am still here and they’re not going to get me yet. But she had an incredibly different situation from many people. Although she was in extremely difficult and precarious health, she had tremendous support from the medical profession and she had great support from my father and her sisters and her children. I think one of the things that – she was able to make a decision partly because of that, and also because one of my sisters had died at the age of six days old, and my mother wasn’t going to let anyone else go, and that was me.

I grew up in the country. There were girls who got pregnant. There were girls who were sent away to have adoptions—have their babies and have adoptions. I can think of some who were much older than me, because I’m really quite young—well, they were my sister’s generation; they were older than me, lots older than me—who were sent away, had babies, adopted out, and then they came back and married the boy who was the father of the child. What in God’s name was anyone’s thinking? What they were thinking was “We have to have our daughter dressed up in a white dress so everyone has their family pride and there’s no shame.” How can there be shame in a child? And yet that happened. It also happened for girls that they were sent away for an abortion—they went to Australia—or else there was somebody that people talked about who performed abortions in the town, and I heard the Hon Gerry Brownlee mentioning something like that before.

So this is not a pro-abortion move, in my opinion. This is about a reality check. I would personally rather that abortions, if they must occur, occur very early on in a pregnancy. I would much rather have that happen. My first pregnancy—well, my first pregnancy was a miscarriage. I miscarried during a court case. Can you imagine what that was like? I had to go back the next day to finish the court case—and people think this place is tough. These things happen. We women have dealt with it for generations, for hundreds of years. It is not a nice place for anyone to be with any pregnancy that is unwanted. But I do think we have to understand the reality. We have to support women when they’re going through this, and we have to have abortions, if they must be, early – as early as possible – and with the least trauma as possible.

Via Hansard

The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.