Hot Potato: Why are our MPs so reluctant to talk about abortion law reform?

The decriminalisation of abortion in New Zealand is long overdue – so why is nothing being done about it? Sarah Batkin attempts to contact all 120 of our MPs to find out who is sweeping this issue under the rug.

On the New Zealand Parliament website, under the “Get Involved” tab, I’m informed that “our democracy works best when you get involved and have your say about things that are important to you”. It also advises that one way to do this is to contact a Member of Parliament directly. So, in the name of becoming a more active participant in democracy, and trying to gain better rights for women in this country, I decided to email all 120 MPs (the Mt Roskill electorate seat is currently vacant) about their individual stances on abortion law reform in New Zealand.


It isn’t often that New Zealand’s abortion law is discussed. It sporadically bursts into the public consciousness before quickly disappearing like a dying star, the most recent examples being the proposed banning of Pro-Life protesters in Thames, and the petition from Hillary Kieft asking for mandatory parental notification for people under 16 seeking abortions. Thankfully the petition, sponsored by National MP Chester Burrows, was unsuccessful.

What exactly is the current law?

Our abortion laws are primarily enshrined in the Crimes Act 1961; abortion is the only medical procedure included in the Act. It states that a person who is under 20 weeks pregnant will need permission from two certifying doctors; she will also need ultrasounds and blood tests. It forces women to feign mental health risks: in fact 99% of all abortions in New Zealand are performed under the guise of “danger to mental health”.

By law, doctors are allowed to refuse permission on the grounds of conscientious objection, a terrifying example of which was seen earlier this year when a Wairoa pharmacist – who owned the township’s only pharmacy – refused to supply the emergency contraceptive pill. When this section of the Crimes Act was passed in 1977 there were only four female MPs – all of whom voted against it. Ironically, New Zealand is a signatory of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which acknowledges abortion as a basic human right.

What did the MPs have to say?

The question put forward to our MPs was simple:

“Do you think New Zealand’s abortion law needs to be reformed? Yes/No”

I received straightforward answers from some, but mostly oblique statements resembling answers. In a country that has supposedly committed itself to abolishing discrimination against women under the UN convention, I’m left wondering why so many MPs are treating this issue like a hot potato. Here are all the responses I got:




On behalf of Labour MP Andrew Little:



Whatever that means.



Didn’t think so.


What does it all mean?

As you can see, there’s a lot of guesswork involved in figuring out who wants to decriminalise abortion in this country, and that’s unacceptable. I’ve made a pie chart of our MPs’ stances on abortion law reform to illustrate my point:


Note that the 14 (11.7%) MP’s who said “yes” are all members of the Green Party. So, after the meagre amount of responses that appeared in my inbox, I decided to do some supplementary digging and add my findings to the pie chart.

John Key and Winston Peters do not support abortion law reform; they also support mandatory parental notification for girls under 16 years who are seeking an abortion, along with Chester Burrows (see above), Judith Collins and Bill English. The possibility of a conscience vote makes things even murkier. This is where members cast independent votes because they don’t all agree on the single party view and usually happens with contentious issues (like abortions).

Can this dying star be revived?

The only thing that can really be deduced from my little experiment is that New Zealand is not living up to its commitments under CEDAW and very few of our MPs seem to want to do anything about it. There needs to be more transparency and engagement from politicians on abortion law reform, especially during election time – which just happens to be next year. It must be serendipity.

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