New Zealand’s Abortion Reform: A Momentous Day

By Patrick McTague.
Edited by Jessica Sutton.

The New Zealand Abortion Legislation Bill 2019 passed it’s third reading in parliament on 18 March 2020 and was signed into law by the Governor-General on 23 March 2020. This Bill removes abortion from the Crimes Act, making it a health issue, and moving “New Zealand’s laws into the 21st century”.[1] This is a great victory for feminism and all people who wish to have autonomy over their own bodies in New Zealand, guaranteeing the right to choose for most cases of pregnancy.

Along with removing abortion from the Crimes Act, the bill ensures that pregnant people can refer themselves for an abortion at a licenced health practitioner any time during their pregnancy, up to 20 weeks. It also ensures that if the health practitioner conscientiously objects to performing an abortion, they must refer the patient to the next closest provider for those services. This means that while no health practitioner is forced to perform an abortion, they cannot deny a person’s right to choose.

However, the Bill is not perfect. Self-referral up to 20 weeks is more than most nations where abortion is legal, one exception being Iceland where the period is 22 weeks. However, it still means that the right to choose is not absolute. While abortion is very rare after 20 weeks, only 0.5% of all abortions,[2] if a person wishes to abort after this period there are serious obstacles put in place through this legislation, and all power is given to the two health practitioners that need to be consulted.

The Bill also failed to pass a clause for safe zones to be put in place around abortion providers on a case-by-case basis, possibly due to a mix-up during reading where no MP called for a personal vote on the clause and an informal “voice vote” was taken instead.[3] Such safe zones would have ensured that protesters could not harass, abuse, intimidate, or humiliate staff or people seeking abortions, which could be “tantamount to psychological abuse”.[4] This paves the way for such protests and harassment to escalate in the wake of this legalization of abortion which has been seen in other countries, notably in America.[5]

Lastly, the Bill does not appear to recognize that trans men or non-binary people can also become pregnant and require abortions. The language used throughout the Bill solely designates women as the seekers and receivers of abortion, rather than “pregnant person”, a term suggested by many submitters. Recognising that gender is not binary and acknowledging the trans community should be at the fore of every piece of legislation in the 21st century. Parliament had the opportunity to include language which is all inclusive rather than restrictive, and chose not to. Our Parliament can do better, and we should demand better from them.

While this is a great victory for New Zealand, many other parts of the world are still fighting for the right to abortion. Even where it is legal, its legality is often savagely fought against, most notably in the United States. In America, legal abortion is protected by the constitution and has been upheld by the landmark Supreme Court ruling of Roe v Wade. However, this has not stopped many states from attempting to restrict abortion, arguably to the point of being unconstitutional. In 2019 Alabama famously enacted a total ban on abortion which would criminalize providing abortion care if it could be enforced (which it cannot at this stage)[6]. Also in 2019, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Missouri have enacted similar outright bans or bans after 6 weeks of gestation (which is typically not long enough to know that you are pregnant).[7] The point of this legislation is typically to incite controversy in order to bring Roe v Wade back into issue at the Supreme Court level. Thus, the public in many American states have few options – accept the Bills as written, or attempt to fight them, and potentially lead to the conservative majority on the Supreme Court overruling Roe v Wade.

This activism against abortion, is not really about saving lives, it is about controlling women. Right-wing governments tend to talk about wanting less restrictions, less regulations on everything, except for when it comes to abortion, one medical procedure that affects one person’s life and body. This tells us that pro-life advocates are not really interested in protecting life. Otherwise they would be in favour of stronger parental support and child protection services, or just better sex education and free contraception to avoid pregnancy in the first place. The result is the ultimate control over a person’s body – forcing them to carry a pregnancy to term and sacrificing every aspect of their life without consent.

So, while New Zealand has seen a great victory in giving bodily autonomy to all of its citizens (for the most part), we see that around the world the fight still continues. Our allies should rejoice in this legislation, take heart that things can change (though slower than we would like), but most importantly we should all feel reinvigorated to continue the battle. Call your representatives, petition, demonstrate, stay informed, fight ignorance and bad faith arguments with fact and calls for protection of rights, and most importantly, support each other.


[1] https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12317885

[2] https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/politics/2020/03/abortion-no-longer-a-crime-in-new-zealand-as-law-change-passes-final-reading-in-parliament.html

[3] https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12315875

[4] https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12317885

[5] https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-loud-truth-about-abortion-protesters

[6] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-50223637

[7] https://reproductiverights.org/what-if-roe-fell


Photo by Lorie Shaull at https://www.flickr.com/photos/number7cloud/47113308954

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