Australia and New Zealand to loosen abortion laws
New Zealand and Australia are poised to decriminalise abortion, marking a symbolic victory for progressive campaigners over social conservatives in a century-long struggle over women’s reproductive rights.
The proposed legislative reforms come amid an intensifying global debate over abortion, with several US states restricting access to the procedure while most other western nations — including in recent years Ireland and Chile — liberalising laws that in many cases date back to the Victorian era.
“We have the opportunity to right a wrong enacted into law 119 years ago,” Brad Hazzard, New South Wales health minister, told state parliament during debate on the bill to amend existing criminal legislation. NSW is one of the two last Australian states to decriminalise the procedure. “A law that no one has had the courage since to change, a law that put women’s reproductive rights into the criminal code.”
The draft legislation passed the lower house of NSW’s parliament late on Thursday night by 59 votes to 31 and will now be passed to the upper house, which is expected to make its decision in the coming weeks.
Experts say delays to the decriminalisation of abortion in New Zealand and NSW may have been driven by fears among MPs that it could lead to a backlash from conservative voters. But both countries have embraced progressive social policies — such as legalising gay marriage — over the past five years, as religious observance has fallen in both nations.
“Why has it taken us so long? This is an issue that people feel deeply about, strongly about. Many hold personal views, many have personal experiences,” said Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, who made decriminalisation a campaign pledge in 2017 polls. “In spite of those personal views, who am I, who is this House, to determine anyone else’s reproductive rights?”
In Australia abortion has long been the responsibility of state governments, which enact laws to regulate the procedure.
In NSW, abortion is treated as a crime unless a doctor believes a woman’s physical or mental health is in serious danger by continuing the pregnancy.
There have been few prosecutions and in practice, abortions are routinely performed as the medical assessment also takes into account the woman’s socio-economic circumstances.
“Our laws mean it is technically a crime to have an abortion and doctors and women must operate in a legal grey zone,” said Lou Dargan, a pro-choice advocate who attended a protest outside the NSW parliament before the vote.
Ms Dargan is one of dozens of Australian women who have publicly disclosed they had abortions as part of the campaign to persuade MPs to back reform. The draft legislation would allow terminations on request up to 22 weeks, with later abortions requiring the approval of additional medical professionals.
The state of South Australia, which also treats abortion as a criminal offence, also has a draft bill under review.
In New Zealand, where two doctors must certify that the pregnancy would harm the woman before she can have an abortion, new legislation would give women the right to seek an abortion in the first 20 weeks.
“Safe abortion should be treated and regulated as a health issue; a woman has the right to choose what happens to her body,” said Andrew Little, New Zealand’s justice minister.
While the abortion bills are widely expected to pass, several church leaders have condemned the move, alleging it would ease access to late-term or full-term abortions.
Glenn Davies, the Anglican archbishop of Sydney, told The Sydney Morning Herald: “I can’t believe for the life of me that these respected parliamentarians would ever put their name to a bill which would kill an unborn baby the day before birth.”
Supporters of the legislation have rubbished claims it would make it easier for women to get late term-abortions.
The reforms stand in contrast to the US, where social conservatives and religious groups have successfully lobbied politicians to pass laws severely restricting or effectively banning abortion in several states.
Australia and New Zealand are both more secular countries than the US. “Religion is a much bigger factor in the US, where a significant minority of people tend to be more fervent and evangelical in their beliefs,” said Ian McAllister, politics professor at Australian National University.
“Social conservatives can use their voting strength in the US system, where politicians need to form broad coalitions to get elected to push their agenda,” said Mr McAllister. “Australia’s strong party system insulates politicians to some degree from this type of pressure.”
Key members of NSW’s conservative coalition government supported the abortion reforms.
Some pro-choice campaigners warn the growth of US-style social conservatism in Australia could pose a threat to recent progressive reforms. The Liberal-National coalition led by Scott Morrison, an evangelical Christian who invited TV cameras into his church when he became prime minister, has proposed a new law to protect religious freedom.
“In recent times, we have seen an increased US-style mixing of religion and politics, which is concerning. We have even seen the prime minister allow cameras into church to show him praying,” said Tania Penovic, a senior law lecturer in Monash University in Melbourne. “The battle over abortion and other progressive reforms is not over in this country — we have to be vigilant.”