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  • Josh Coldspring-White

New Zealand and the surprising battle over abortion

New Zealand. Home of beautiful mountains, amazing butter and The Hobbit. More recently, it has made headlines thanks to its young, ‘woke’ Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. However, there is a battle that has rumbled on under the surface of this small island country for many years - the battle over abortion.

New Zealand’s abortion laws date back to the 1970s, when inspired by the change in the UK and Australia, abortion was decriminalised. Despite this, the practice of abortion remains in the Crimes Act. This adds masses of bureaucracy to what should be a straightforward procedure; it means that abortions can only be performed if two doctors approve the procedure, and if it is for health reasons. Any reason other than this and mothers could be fined, or even face jail time. Since then, many of Ardern’s predecessors, such as Helen Clark, have tried to shift this balance, succeeding with minimal changes. However, in New Zealand’s political system coalitions are inevitable, and wholesale abortion reform has simply been put on the backburner.

The tension surrounding the issue has been further highlighted by the conflicts between two major lobbying groups: the pro-life Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) and the pro-choice Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand (ALRANZ). SPUC, which has consistently represented a minority of public opinion, have often used their parliamentary influence to try and toughen up abortion laws. One notable example was in 1983, when an MP tried to pass SPUC-backed legislation which would've given unborn foetuses the same rights as other humans. His bill failed to pass, however, as another MP from the same party uncovered his scandalous extramarital affair, killing the reforms in their tracks. At the same time, as the issue faded as an issue of public priority, ALRANZ lost members, dwindling down to around 200 by the mid-2000s.

This year though, there was a glimmer of hope for New Zealand’s women as Ardern brought forward legislation that would see abortion be treated as a public health issue and allow the procedure to be legal in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. However, even this proved controversial, as Ardern's coalition partners, the Nationalist New Zealand First, argued it would only support the legislation if put to a referendum (their leader, unsurprisingly, could be described as the Kiwi Nigel Farage). The vote was also made a conscience issue, meaning Ardern didn’t make her Labour Party vote under a three-line whip. However, the Bill still passed its first reading, and New Zealand, where around 70% of citizens in a recent poll supported abortion reform, now has a realistic chance of seeing their laws modernised in line with the rest of the western world.

The question is then, is New Zealand not as progressive as we thought? In practicality, this is an extreme assertion. Whilst the legislation is undesirable, it has been tampered with so much that women can have access to abortion as freely as other countries. In 2018, for example, more abortions happened in New Zealand than in Germany and Scotland. However, loopholes remain in the law that means that even in the 21st century, women can still be prosecuted under laws that are quite frankly, archaic. This symbolises how, in an ever-changing world, we often forget the importance of the fundamental rights we enjoy, and if New Zealand teaches us anything, it is that we should never take any of these rights and freedoms for granted.

Image - Unsplash

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