The New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference president has reiterated that abortion is both a health and a justice issue as the push for abortion law reform takes another step. 

Bishop Patrick Dunn made an initial reaction to the release of a briefing paper by the Law Commission to the Minister of Justice around abortion law and related areas.

Justice Minister Andrew Little, at the behest of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, had requested Law Commission advice in February on what treating abortion as a health matter could look like.

According to the foreword in the briefing paper, it discusses “what alternative approaches could be taken in New Zealand’s legal framework if the Government decides to propose a policy shift to treat abortion as a health issue”.

“The commission has not conducted a full review of all aspects of abortion law and does not express a view on the appropriate policy approach,” the paper added.

In its 230-page briefing paper, the Law Commission suggested three legal models for abortion provision, all of which would require the current grounds for abortion in the Crimes Act to be repealed, and the requirement for an abortion to be authorised by two certifying consultants also to be repealed. The Abortion Supervisory Committee’s responsibilities would be moved to the Ministry of Health.

The first model would see abortion at any stage of pregnancy being a decision made by a woman in consultation with her health practitioner.

The second model would see the health practitioner who intends to perform the abortion needing to reasonably believe the abortion is appropriate in the circumstances, having regard to the woman’s physical and mental health and wellbeing. Again this could be at any stage of pregnancy.

The third model would see abortion up to 22 weeks of pregnancy being on the same basis as the first model, and later in pregnancy the rule in the second model would apply.

The briefing paper discussed related matters, including access to abortion and its oversight, informed consent and counselling, conscientious objection and the offence of killing an unborn child currently in the Crimes Act.

Bishop Dunn said: “The paper is substantial and so we need time to read it and give it careful consideration. However, we must not lose sight of two key facts in this discussion. As we argued in our recent submission to the Law Commission, abortion is both a health and justice issue and our laws should continue to treat abortion as such. There are always at least two human lives involved — the unborn human person and the mother. The current abortion regime recognises this.”

“When you look closely at the current law,” Bishop Dunn continued, “we do not believe that it criminalises women as some say — indeed in the section describing unlawful abortions, the law explicitly states that ‘a woman shall not be charged as a party to an offence against this section’. Taking abortion out of the Crimes Act will, however, effectively remove all legal protections for the unborn child.”

“In taking the stance we do, we also acknowledge that the law must adequately protect the well-being of women and their families.

“The experience of Catholic agencies with a long history of working with women who have had abortions is that many women experience negative consequences following an abortion, often because they made the decision under duress. Thus, we welcome the discussion in the document about the need for better informed consent by way of the provision of effective and independent counselling for all those contemplating an abortion.

“The changes in legislation we would advocate for are those which would further recognise and protect the rights of the unborn child while promoting the well-being of women.”

There were 3419 submissions to the commission, but only 18 per cent of these backed removing abortion from the Crimes Act. After receiving the briefing paper, Mr Little said he “will be taking time to talk to my colleagues across all parties about the Law Commission’s briefing before progressing further”.

Because it is a conscience issue, Cabinet would decide on a process and, after that, it might be possible to get a bill before Parliament early next year, he reportedly said.

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