Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Time to reform abortion law

For the past thirty years, New Zealand has had an uneasy compromise on abortion. Technically, the law limits abortion to cases of rape, abnormality, or serious danger to the life or physical or mental health of the woman. In practice, the latter clause is interpreted liberally by certifying consultants to allow abortion on demand (though with far too many hoops to jump through). This has allowed us to avoid the ugly abortion politics seen elsewhere (e.g. the US) and get on with our lives in peace and quiet. Only the Christian fundamentalists have really continued to care about the issue, and in an overwhelmingly secular society (particularly when it comes to issues of sex and reproductive rights), who listens to them?

Unfortunately, it seems the High Court did. And as a result, we have a judgement which questions the lawfulness of many abortions done in this country.

The full judgement is here [PDF]. The key findings are that there is "reason to doubt" the lawfulness of many abortions authorised by certifying consultants (later the judgement talks of "wholesale non-compliance by certifying consultants"), and that the Abortion Supervisory Committee has the power (and under s14(a) of the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act 1977, the duty) to inquire into those decisions (or at least report it to Parliament). Judgement is reserved on declarations, but together these judgements break the compromise and signal a more conservative interpretation of the law. That poses a direct challenge to the right of women to control their own bodies. And that challenge is likely to be unacceptable to the vast majority of New Zealanders.

If the compromise is broken and we are going to have a debate, then it is time to push for New Zealand to join the modern world and introduce abortion on demand. If its been the effective practice for the past thirty years and most of us have been happy with the status quo, then we might as well formally codify it. And while some are likely to be uneasy with that recognition, I think most are likely to be even more uneasy with the alternative of fundamentalist Christians forcing people to have kids.

Of course, for that to happen, someone is going to have to bring a bill. So, who's game?