In 1977 New Zealand passed abortion legislation that was described as the most repressive in the Western world and, apart from a couple of minor modifications in 1978, it hasn’t been changed since. If a woman wants to have an abortion in New Zealand she must get two certifying consultants (these are registered doctors who are selected on the basis that their views aren’t in conflict with current abortion law) to agree that she meets the following criteria:
That the continuance of the pregnancy would result in serious danger (not being danger normally attendant upon childbirth) to the life, or to the physical or mental health, of the woman or girl . . .; or
(aa)That there is a substantial risk that the child, if born, would be so physically or mentally abnormal as to be seriously handicapped; or
(b)That the pregnancy is the result of sexual intercourse between…
(i)A parent and child; or
(ii)A brother and sister, whether of the whole blood or of the half blood; or
(iii)A grandparent and grandchild; or
(c)That the pregnancy is the result of sexual intercourse that constitutes an offence against section 131(1) of this Act[this means a dependent family member]; or
(d)That the woman or girl is severely subnormal within the meaning of section 138(2) of this Act.
If I discovered that I was pregnant tomorrow I would go to my doctor (this would be free because maternity care in New Zealand is free) who would refer me to the euphemistically named Level J Unit in the Wellington Public hospital. I would have to make two appointments (neither of which would cost me anything) where I’d have to talk to a whole lot of people, and at the end of the second appointment I could have by abortion by suction (which I’d choose, but because I live in Wellington I also have the option of medical abortion). The abortion would be safe, on demand and free (the three things I want all abortions to be).
The point of this post is that despite the hideous laws we have in New Zealand I have better abortion access than most American women. I think that talking about the New Zealand abortion situation is all I have to offer women in South Dakota, and the rest of the States. I know most abortion activists in America know far more about this than I do, but this is a tale which begins with laws being tightened and ends with access being loosened – I thought it might sound like good news.
Reading about comparative abortion law makes it clear that there is often very little relationship between abortion law and abortion practice, except for occasional ceremonial public fight. New Zealand is the positive example of that, the United States is the negative.
New Zealand women didn’t have a legal right to abortion before the law change, but from 1974 if you could get up to Auckland in your first trimester then Auckland Medical Aid Centre would probably give you one, basically they were ignoring the law. They were raided by the cops, and faced prosecution, but the juries wouldn’t convict the abortion doctor. There were several attempts to change the law and close the clinic but they failed due to general incompentence.
Before the law change there were also some underground networks, people who knew how to do menstrual extraction (which is a skill well worth learning, particularly because you don’t have to wait for someone to need an abortion to practice it) and doctors and who were performing abortions of dubious legality.
Immediately after the law was passed you could not get a legal abortion in New Zealand (although there were probably some D&C operations that had the purpose of ending a pregnancy). Instead if a woman was going to get an abortion she had to fly to Australia. This cost $500 then, which would be $2,652.14 now (that’s $1,736.89 US). This was made reasonably seamless by SOS (Save Our Sisters) groups, that would do all the organising required to get someone to Australia, and do some subsidising of travel. There were complications: one of the big abortion clinics in Australia started subsidising the SOS groups to try and increase their business.
The best estimate anyone can do actually shows the number of abortions New Zealand women had over this period going up after the law change, it’s just they were all happening in Australia. Then slowly more abortions were allowed, and the boundaries began to be pushed. Now 98% of abortions are done under the grounds that the continuance of the pregnancy would result in serious danger (not being danger normally attendant upon childbirth) to the mental health of the woman or girl.
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the reason that the U.S. anti-abortion laws are getting more restrictive is that there really is a significantly large group of anti-feminist, right-wing crusaders who are powerful enough to get elections to go their way. they are true anti-abortion believers…in other words the law reflects their beliefs.
it sounds from your description that despite the law on the NZ books, the NZ’ers just don’t have the political will to prohibit abortion in any practical way (yet another way in which i think i’d like NZ….). in other words, your law doesn’t really reflect the beliefs of the politically powerful. so why is the law still on the books? or did i get the situation all wrong?
That sounds similar to the law in the UK, maybe somewhat more restrictive. I’ve never heard of a case that didn’t meet the criteria, particularly because of the “harm to mental health” thing, it’s usually obvious that forcing a woman or girl to remain pregnant and give birth against her will wouldbe harmful to her mental state!
As for the law not matching the beliefs of polititians or many of the public, I think it’s a compromise that’s acceptable to the majority of people. If you’re pro-choice, at least you know that you effectively have abortion on request, if you’re less comfortable with that idea then you can at least see that there are restrictions in place, there always has to be a “reason”, it has to be approved by two doctors etc. Of course that is no good to the militant antichoice people, but they would of course only be pleased by an outright ban.
I have heard of cases where anti-abortion doctors used delaying tactics to prevent a woman getting an abortion, until she was past the legal time limit, without of course telling her about their anti-abortion stance. That’s a disturbing thing, but fortunately it’s very rare as far as I know.
That’s a really interesting read. Some history from another country;
When I became pregnant for the first time in 1981, the law in Canada was very similar. Patients were referred to a surgeon who was associated with a hospital that did the procedure for an interview, and then a subsequent interview was done with a panel made up of members of the hospital board. Reasons for allowing the procedure were very similar to the ones you list, and by that time, “mental health” was usually interpreted to include emotional distress due to an unwanted pregnancy. In a sympathetic province abortion could be obtained pretty much on demand. If the woman’s own doctor felt it was appropriate, the woman could make her case on audio tape rather than have to appear before the board in person.
In the best-case scenario, the biggest problem with the system was the amount of time it took. Appointments had to be made for the consultation, the hearing and the procedure itself, and that took three to six weeks. In my case the waiting time put me beyond the legal limit for abortions in Canada. Worst-case of course, was that one lived in an unsympathetic province and had to travel to obtain an abortion, often at great expense.
When Dr Henry Henry Morgentaler started his independant clinics in various cities across Canada, he was charged with violating the abortion laws. The jury refused to convict him, and the fight went all the way to the Supreme Court. The law was struck down as unconstitutional in the late 80’s.
We have not had an abortion law since.
Hello over there in Wellington, maia…my home town! (I’m currently living in Western Australia)
I was actually born in Wellington Hospital and even worked there as a cleaner/tea maker etc during school holidays many moons ago….
“Now 98% of abortions are done under the grounds that the continuance of the pregnancy would result in serious danger (not being danger normally attendant upon childbirth) to the mental health of the woman or girl.”
Do you think is an example of flouting the law?
Like in New Zealand, abortions are free in Denmark. You have to have two appointments – one to have a medical check, and one to get the avortion done (again you can choose what typoe of abortion you want).
The only thing that is even remotely like the US system, is the fact that the doctor that makes the appointment for the actual abortion, has to mention to the woman that the state of Denmark is willing to help support the child, if she chooses to give birth to it (this goes for all children, or rather their legal guardians – all children receive a certain amount of money from the state per year, on top of all other welfare benifits).
I am not quite sure why this rule is in place, but I guess it’s there to make sure that women don’t feel forced to abortion for economical reasons.
I don’t usually tease people about their typos, especially given the number I make myself, but this one was too beautiful to ignore. I love the idea of being able to chose the typo you want. Actually, this one is nearly perfect: it doesn’t impede understanding what you meant yet adds an extra layer of meaning to the sentence.
Denmark also sounds like a lovely place and I don’t see a problem with making sure that the woman seeking an abortion has overtly been told that she will get economic help raising her child if she choses to have one–if it’s true. In the US, “pregnancy crisis centers” sometimes falsely claim that they will provide material support to a woman and her child if she will have it rather than having an abortion, but they almost never come through with more than perhaps a box of diapers and a little formula. It’s also important to remember that two visits in Denmark is much less of a barrier than two visits in many parts of the US: Denmark is much smaller so the time and inconvenience of making two visits is much less (consider the distance traveled to get to a clinic by someone in rural Denmark versus, say, South Dakota or rural Montana.)
polymath in 1977 the law did reflect the beliefs of law makers, who were strongly anti-abortion (or at least the men were, the female MPs voted entirely consistently throughout the 1970s, but there were only 4 of them at any one time). Now there’s probably a pro-choice majority in parliament, but they’re all too scared to raise it. But these highly restrictive laws became interpreted in very liberal ways while the majority of MPs were still anti-abortion fuckwits. Which is my point, the law doesn’t have to be the end of the matter, access matters too, and access and law don’t have as straight up relationship as you’d think.
Sarah the UK is actually my favourite abortion law (I suspect the fact that I have a favourite abortion law condemns me to an unprecedented level of geekdom) – because it is such an elegant fudge. Basically it says you can have an abortion if the risk of having an abortion is less than the risk of giving birth. Which is, of course, most of the time. So it seems like a compromise, but it is actually abortion on demand.
Am I right in thinking Canada still has widely different access depending on the province?
I have no problem with women being told that the state will support them to raise the child before they have an abortion, as long as it’s true (and I’m all for it being true).
Sebastian while it’s true the intention of the law is being ignored, the letter of the law is being followed. If anyone is flouting the law it’s not the women getting the abortions, but the certifying consultants, and the abortion supervisory committee who appoint them
Opps – I haven’t changed my posting name on this computer.
Sounds like a very pleasing state of affairs in New Zealand. Denmark as well.
I don’t know how Canada’s abortion laws vary. I suppose I ought to find out about British Columbia, as I’m thinking of trying to go to grad school there.
that’s actually quite well understood by the right wing in the U.S. they realize that they’re often in a political minority, so instead of restricting abortions by law, they restrict it by access: few hospitals/clinics/doctors that will perform them, economic barriers, and often even outright hostile intimidation. (which i’ve really never understood…what, they’re going to beat up a pregnant woman whose “baby” they want to save and risk harming it in the process?)
but my point is that it’s interesting how it works in the opposite way in N.Z., where creative interpretation has made access be no problem even if the law technically is.
It’s true, since it is part of the whole welfare system. This means that the help will only come into place, if the family (whatever it consists off) doesn’t earn enough to support itself. Also, the mother get a paid maternial (sp?) leave, even if she is unemployed, and the father can apply for it.
It’s even less of a barrier than you might think. Every person in Denmark is assigned a ‘family doctor’, that takes care of general medical checkups, including the first ‘visit’ in regards to the abortion. Except for people living on the countryside, all doctors have to live within 5 kilometers (approx 3 miles) of the person.
The actual abortion takes place at a hospital, which is father away, but the state will pay for the transportation if necessary.
Also, I should perhaps mention that an anti-abortion stance is regarded as political death in Denmark. There is one party (Kristlig Folkeparti – Christian Peoples’ Party) that is against abortion, but they are not in parliament, and don’t mention that particular stance much.
A since Denmark has a state church, priests are not debating abortion in general. One priest was fired a few yyears ago for participating in an anit-abortion rally in his priestly robes. This was regarded as inappropriate use of his work uniform, and an attempt to make it seem that the state church held an official view on the subject (which it very much doesn’t, other than acknowledging that it is a legal matter).
That was kind of my point (that Polymath picked up on) – we’ve got a pleasing state of affairs with a law that is only slightly less restrictive than in South Dakota. The law is only one stage in the battle, it’s not the war.
I can’t think of any situation in which legal, aseptic abortion would be more dangerous than giving birth (except if the abortion were forced, in which case it would clearly be more psychologically risky than giving birth). So I agree with you that, as long as the people interpreting the law act reasonably, the law says that abortion is available on demand. The problem is if you get someone who doesn’t understand biology or statistics making the decisions. Then they might, untruthfully but with legal force, claim that abortion was riskier. So I’m not sure I like the law so much: it places too much power in the hands of the state still.