New Zealand abortion bill 'totally unacceptable', bishops say

Parliament House Wellington Credit Junki Asano Shutterstock Parliament House, Wellington. | Junki Asano/Shutterstock.

The unborn child will lose all rights under a bill to change New Zealand's abortion laws, and women pressured into abortion will not receive the help they need, the country's Catholic bishops have warned.

"In the womb, the child already has its own unique genetic identity and whakapapa. Our abortion laws must reflect this reality," said Cynthia Piper, a spokeswoman for the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference.

"It is a major failing of the proposed new law that there will no longer be any statutory requirement to consider the rights of the unborn child. That is totally unacceptable to the bishops and many New Zealanders."

The New Zealand Parliament's Abortion Legislation Select Committee has recommended changing abortion law to remove any legal restrictions for an abortion up to 20 weeks into pregnancy, and thus "effectively introducing abortion on demand," the bishops' conference said Feb. 19. The bill has already passed a first reading.

Under the proposal, pregnancies more than 20 weeks into pregnancy would require a health practitioner to believe with reason that the abortion is "appropriate" given the women's physical and mental health and well-being. Piper objected that such criteria are not defined and are too subjective and broad.

Changes for abortion after 20 weeks into pregnancy will "significantly widen" the ability to choose abortion of an unborn child on the basis of disability, objected Piper. The proposed bill removes all references to fetal abnormalities, while current law cites them as a reason for abortion only up to 20 weeks.

The Catholic bishops fear changes to abortion law will harm many women, Piper reported. She cited her own experience working with women who have had abortions and experienced long-lasting negative effects, particularly when they felt pressured to have an abortion.

"The coercive reality of societal, familial and economic pressures that arise when a woman suddenly finds herself with an unplanned pregnancy is well documented," she said. "The select committee itself acknowledges that they heard from several submitters, particularly young women, who believed they might not have chosen abortion if they had received more support. But what is being proposed will not help women in this situation make different decisions."

The select committee received more than 25,700 written submissions on the proposal to change abortion law. About 90% of submissions opposed the change, the bishops said.

In September 2019 the Catholic bishops' conference made an 11-page submission to the committee, jointly authored by their bioethics-focused agency The Nathaniel Centre.

Their submission cited a 1977 report from the Royal Commission on Contraception, Sterilization and Abortion which said "the unborn child, as one of the weakest, the most vulnerable, and most defenseless forms of humanity, should receive protection."

It is possible the bill would face a tight vote, the Australian Associated Press reports. Though the bill passed parliament on its first reading by a vote of 93 to 24, many MPs who voted in favor are expected to vote against it, but wanted to see it go to committee.

Labour, National, and Green MPs will have a conscience vote on the bill, but all eight Green MPs back it. The nine MPs from the New Zealand First party could abstain if the matter isn't sent to a referendum. Marijuana and euthanasia proposals will be up for consideration in the country's Sept. 19 election.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern predicted the bill would gain majority support.

Several thousand women who back abortion rights took part in public demonstrations to end criminal laws against abortion. Abortion advocates like Terry Bellamak, national president of the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand, praised some changes to the bill, including stronger laws against protestors outside of abortion clinics.

Her Feb. 18 comments faulted a change that gives an option to abortion providers not to be listed on the director-general's list, saying this will make it harder for women seeking abortions.

"It means the government anticipates some providers may not want it generally known that they provide abortion care," said Bellamak, suggesting this was due to fears of "harassment" outside clinics.

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Bellamak objected to provisions for conscientious objection, including new provisions protecting those who object to some treatments for sexual assault victims. Some health providers object that some drugs billed as emergency contraception have properties that can cause abortions if an unborn child has been conceived.

She also objected to the lack of requirements that health providers provide notice that they object to what the pro-abortion group considers "reproductive health care."

National MP Agnes Loheni, a member of the select committee on the abortion bill, wrote a minority report critical of the proposal. She warned that if enacted the bill will "severely breach and irreparably damage the 'sanctity of life' principle which has been the cornerstone of New Zealand's common law."

"Our current abortion law seeks to balance the rights and autonomy of the expectant mother against the interests of unborn human life," she said, charging that the proposal "removes the human rights of the unborn child completely."

She rejected claims that the current law criminalizes women, noting that no woman has been charged with having an unlawful abortion in New Zealand. The law aims to "protect women from unlawful abortions" and in fact criminalizes only those who perform abortions against the law.

She called for a royal commission to investigate whether changes are needed.

Loheni also faulted the minimal restrictions after 20 weeks into pregnancy, noting that this would allow abortion "until the moment of birth."

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"I know people get really uncomfortable with that, but at the end of the day, that is what the law will allow, there is no upper limit on that test," she said, according to RNZ News. Loheni criticized requirements for a woman seeking an abortion to consult with a physician, saying they were too minimal.

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