Abortion in New Zealand is legal when a pregnant woman faces a serious danger to her life, or her physical or mental health, or if there is a risk of the foetus being handicapped in the event of the pregnancy continuing. In 2009, 98.2 per cent of New Zealand’s 17,550 abortions were carried out on the grounds that the mother’s mental health was in serious danger.
The grounds on which an induced abortion is permitted are described in the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act (1977) and section 187A of the Crimes Act (1961). The 1977 Act doesn’t confer any direct legal rights on the unborn child but does attempt to strike a balance between the rights of the child and the mother. The Abortion Supervisory Committee, appointed by Parliament, is responsible for keeping under review the workings of abortion law.
In 2005, Right to Life New Zealand sued the Abortion Supervisory Committee, alleging it was failing to review whether certifying consultants were complying with the law. Right to Life argued that many abortions were being unlawfully certified as a ‘threat to the woman’s mental health’ when these grounds were not actually met.
Right to Life also sued on two other grounds: that sufficiently independent abortion counselling was not being provided, and that the unborn child had legal rights from conception, including an inalienable right to life.
In April 2008, Justice Forrest Miller ruled in the Wellington High Court against Right to Life on the two latter grounds, meaning an unborn child still has no express right to life under New Zealand law.
He did, however, rule in favour of Right to Life on the first ground, criticising the way that abortion laws were being applied in New Zealand and stating there is ‘reason to doubt the lawfulness of many abortions’. Justice Miller expressed the view that New Zealand essentially had abortion on request.
The Abortion Supervisory Committee appealed, with Right to Life cross-appealing on the matters the court had ruled against. The Court of Appeal released its decision on 1 June this year. Right to Life failed in its cross-appeals and the court also reversed the High Court’s 2008 decision, criticising Justice Miller’s findings about the lawfulness of abortions and his comments about New Zealand having abortion on request.
This was a divided decision, though, with Justice Terence Arnold disagreeing with the views of the other two judges. He agreed that the Abortion Supervisory Committee could not interfere with the decisions made in individual cases, but still considered that such decisions could be reviewed after the fact and reported to Parliament. Right to Life is currently appealing to the Supreme Court.
Peter McKenzie, QC, has provided legal representation to Right to Life on this matter since 2004. ‘My views are not identical to the views of Right to Life,’ says McKenzie. ‘I find it difficult to take the view that all abortion is wrong in every circumstance. There are issues in the life of the mother that need to be taken into account; it’s a justice matter for the child and also for the mother. There are two lives involved. But it did concern me as a Christian in New Zealand that we resort to abortion far too readily.’
He emphasises that Right to Life was not attempting to outlaw abortion in New Zealand, but says it does believe the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act (1977) is not being instituted as originally intended. ‘Many thousands of lives have been taken that would not have been if the Act had been properly applied,’ he says.
McKenzie believes the situation in New Zealand is not far removed from abortion on demand. He is concerned that the country might head down a path of ‘unfettered choice’ by decriminalising abortion, leaving the decision only with a pregnant woman and her doctor. Last year, Labour MP Steve Chadwick said she was considering introducing a Private Members Bill to do just that, although she indicated she would not proceed unless sure of majority support.
McKenzie feels the abortion issue has gone off the agenda for many Christians—and for the media. The High Court decision two years ago saw a lot of debate, but this year’s Court of Appeal decision received very little attention. There is widespread unwillingness to ‘rock the boat’ on abortion, he says. ‘As a society we’ve adopted a rather blinkered and pragmatic approach so we don’t have to look too closely at this issue. I would like to see the system being more honest about what happens—we are taking a lot of human lives on grounds that are spurious.’
The silence of the church especially worries him. ‘In the past, the church was very active and spoke into the community [about abortion]. This was not always balanced, but we spoke out on behalf of the unborn children. Now abortion seems off limits.’ Right to Life is more strident, stating: ‘Why are the churches silent in defence of God’s children? Their deafening silence is being construed as consent.’
‘It is a polarising debate,’ McKenzie acknowledges. ‘The temperature does go up when we discuss abortion, and there are many thousands of people personally affected, so it does raise lots of issues for a lot of people. But that doesn’t mean that the church should remain silent because we’re going to upset people.’
If Right to Life’s appeal is successful, it could mean several thousand more babies are born. But there are already ways for the abortion rate to be brought down, says McKenzie, if churches and others will provide more help and support for mothers in taking their babies to term.
Making the decision about whether or not to abort a baby is one of the hardest decisions a woman (and sometimes the baby’s father) will ever make. One Christian health worker counsels women: ‘Whatever you decide—whether you keep your baby or not—this is a major life event that will remain with you forever.’ Because of that, it is important that women take the time to fully consider all the options available, rather than feeling an expectation that they terminate their pregnancy.
She points out that some women facing unplanned pregnancies are in horrific situations of incest, domestic violence or extreme poverty that may be difficult for others to imagine. ‘What impact is the church making on these issues?’ she asks. At the same time, it’s clear that contraceptive education is not working well enough in New Zealand, something that needs to be addressed.
By Christina Tyson (abridged from War Cry, 8 October 2011, p5-7)