Abortion in New Zealand

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Abortion in New Zealand is legal in cases where the pregnant woman faces a danger to her life, physical or mental health, or if there is a risk of the fetus being handicapped in the event of the continuation of her pregnancy. In cases not protected by these grounds, performing an abortion on a woman or girl is a crime in New Zealand under the Crimes Act 1961 (the woman or girl is not party to the offence). Regulations in New Zealand require that abortions after 12 weeks gestation be performed in a "licensed institution", which is generally understood to be a hospital. Abortions must be authorised by two doctors (referred to as "certifying consultants" within the legislation), one of whom must be a gynaecologist or obstetrician. However, doctors can refuse to authorise the procedure, in which case the woman must find another doctor and plead her case with them until she has the permission of two doctors, and also a qualified surgeon if neither of those doctors are licensed to perform the operation. Counselling is optional if the woman desires it, but is not mandatory under current abortion law. There is no statutory definition of fetuses or embryos as "unborn children" within New Zealand abortion law.



In 1867 the New Zealand parliament made it an offence to cause a miscarriage. Therapeutic abortions were available under limited circumstances,[1] such as when the mother's life was in serious danger.[2]

In 1936 the First Labour Government of New Zealand set up a committee, led by D.G. McMillan, to inquire about the incidence of septic abortion in New Zealand. The report estimated that at least 13 in every 100 pregnancies ended in criminal abortion, that number having increased over the five years prior. In the same time period, while maternal deaths had dropped, the number of deaths due to septic abortions had increased, accounting for two-fifths of total maternal mortality. Based on evidence heard before the committee, it was found that a major reason for abortions was a change in social outlook, "particularly towards the rearing of large families" and "an attitude of pitying superiority towards the woman with many children." Other reasons included lack of suitable housing in cities, lack of help for women in performing domestic labour, and the widespread use of ineffective methods of contraception.[2]

In the 1930s, Isabel Annie Aves was tried four times for "unlawfully using an instrument with intent to procure a miscarriage" without conviction.[3] In the 1940s, activists such as Alice Bush advocated for access to doctor-provided abortions.[4]

Public debate increased following the legalisation of abortion in Britain in 1967 and in South Australia in 1969. The legalisation of abortion in Australia enabled New Zealand women who could afford to travel to have abortions in Australia.

Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977[edit]

The core legislation pertaining to abortion is the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act 1977, and it enacted parallel specifications through amendment of the Guardianship Act 1968 (retained in the Care of Children Act 2004) and Section 187A of the Crimes Act 1961. These provisions enable women to undergo confidential medical consultation after they have seen two certifying consultant medical practitioners.

Current New Zealand law allows for abortions to be performed for the following reasons, providing the abortion is approved by two certifying consultants and the pregnancy is less than 20 weeks old:

Other factors which may be considered, but are not in themselves grounds for abortion, are:

Since 1977[edit]

As the annual statistics for the Abortion Supervisory Committee have repeatedly noted, mental health grounds are the predominant grounds for most certified abortions in New Zealand. The high numbers of abortions in New Zealand for mental health grounds have led pro-lifers to express concerns that the mental health exception is being used to allow abortion on demand.[6]

By contrast, ALRANZ notes that successive abortion-related case law has preserved the status quo of partial decriminalisation and liberal terms of abortion access for most New Zealand women who need an abortion.

In 1999 Graeme White was jailed for tunneling into an abortion clinic in a failed attempt to blow it up.[7]

Since 2003 abortion clinics have been able to administer medical abortions – taking mifegyne/mifepristone to cause the embryo to dislodge from the uterine wall, and a prostaglandin supplement to expel the remains.[8] In April 2003, Justice Durie clarified parts of the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977 relating to "performing" medical abortions, so women who wish to have medical abortions must take medications in a licensed facility, but need not remain there between taking the two sets of tablets, which are taken 48 hours apart. Women also need not stay in the facility until the expulsion of the fetus completes the abortion.

Right to Life launched a court case against the Abortion Supervisory Committee, accusing it of not sufficiently regulating abortion by allowing broad interpretation of the mental health exception. A High Court decision supported some of Right to Life New Zealand's points, finding that there was de facto abortion on demand. However, the Abortion Supervisory Committee appealed this to the New Zealand Court of Appeal.[citation needed] On 1 June 2011 the Court of Appeal overturned the earlier High Court verdict, finding that there was no statutory reference to embryos and fetuses within New Zealand law, and therefore no grounds for further attempted interference with existing abortion access procedures. It did not however overturn the finding that there was de facto abortion on demand in New Zealand.[9] Right to Life appealed to the New Zealand Supreme Court, which dismissed their appeal by a 3-2 majority.[10]

Ongoing debate[edit]

In 2010 Labour MP Steve Chadwick proposed an Abortion Reform Bill to take abortion out of the Crimes Act. The anti-abortion organisation Voice for Life opposed the Bill, which ALRANZ supported.[11] After Chadwick lost her seat in Parliament in the 2011 general election, ALRANZ and its parliamentary supporters were trying to find a new sponsor for the proposed bill.

Parliament has been the venue of occasional debates about the composition of the Abortion Supervisory Committee (which was formed in 1977) when appointments and expiry dates for its membership have come and gone. On 7 April 2011, during the term of the 49th New Zealand Parliament, the composition of the committee was debated. Tariana Turia moved that an anti-abortion Pacific Island doctor, Ate Moala, be appointed to the ASC. The vote was lost 70–30 against, with twenty absences or abstentions. [12]

The main pro-choice lobby group is Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand (ALRANZ), which favours the complete decriminalisation of abortion in New Zealand, but if that does not occur wants to have socio-economic reasons made a reason for obtaining a legal abortion.

The main pro-life lobby groups are Right to Life, Family Life International, and Voice for Life, which favours reforming New Zealand abortion law to make it more restrictive. In recent years, it has lobbied for a "parental consent" law, which would require a girl under 16 years of age to obtain the consent of her parents before having an abortion.[citation needed] Voice for Life has also tried to lobby parliament to alter the composition of the Abortion Supervisory Committee in the hope of limiting the number of abortions performed on mental health grounds.[citation needed]

There are no parental notification or consent requirements for young women seeking abortions, and a female can consent to an abortion at any age. In 2004, Parliament debated a proposed amendment to the Care of Children Act 2004, which would have required anyone under 16 years of age to notify their parents before having an abortion. National MP for Clevedon Judith Collins was the primary mover of this amendment, supported by the pro-life lobby group Voice for Life (formerly known as SPUC).[citation needed]

Collins was opposed by ALRANZ, the New Zealand Medical Association and New Zealand College of General Practitioners. A NZ Herald Digipoll showed that 71% of New Zealanders believed parents should be informed about whether or not their child was to have an abortion, with 60% believing this should be legally mandatory.[citation needed] This "parental notification" legislation was heavily defeated, as the New Zealand Medical Association and New Zealand College of General Practitioners objected that the abrogation of medical confidentiality would endanger pregnant incest survivors, and/or those within similar dysfunctional families and abusive parents. Another pro-life amendment was also defeated. It required the Abortion Supervisory Committee to collect statistics on how many abortions come from pregnancies caused by incest, and what happened to those young women after their abortion.[citation needed] Again, Parliament rejected this on the basis of abrogation of medical confidentiality for no evidence-based purpose.[citation needed] Voice for Life cited material from the US National Right to Life Committee and other US pro-life groups, while the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand similarly used material from the National Abortion Rights Action League and other US pro-choice organisations.[citation needed]

During the 48th New Zealand Parliament, former Kiwi Party list MP Gordon Copeland had a private members bill, the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion (Informed Consent) Amendment Bill, drawn from the ballot. It was based on an Australian Capital Territory 'informed consent' piece of legislation, since repealed, and was defeated on a voice vote in Parliament.[13] Copeland has since been voted out of Parliament, as he did not secure a constituency seat at the New Zealand general election held in 2008 and his Kiwi Party polled well under the five percent threshold under the MMP framework in the Electoral Act 1993. The Kiwi Party has ceased to exist and Copeland is now a member of the Conservative Party of New Zealand, a social conservative party that is not represented in the New Zealand Parliament. It supports "parental notification" for adolescent abortions.

During New Zealand general election, 2017 the Labour leader Jacinda Ardern said a Labour government would decriminalise abortion.[14]

A roadside sign in the South Island advocating pro-life.


The Abortion Supervisory Committee collects statistics on the numbers of terminations performed each year, and for what reason, under the terms of the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act 1977. It reported that there was 18,511 abortions performed in New Zealand in 2003. According to 2003 figures by Statistics New Zealand, there were 21.0 abortions per 1000 women. This equates to roughly 247 per 1000 known pregnancies. Split amongst ethnicity in 2002 the highest rates were amongst Asian women (374), followed by Māori (245), Pacific Island women (243) and European women (209).[citation needed]

New Zealand's abortion rate (number of abortions per 1000 women aged 15–44 years) is slightly below Australia's (22.2), and the United States (21.3), but above Japan's (13.8), Finland and Scotland's (both 10.9) and many European countries.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Encyclopedia of New Zealand: Abortion. Accessed 2012-12-13.
  2. ^ a b Report of the Committee Of Inquiry Into The Various Aspects of the Problem of Abortion in New Zealand (Report). 1936. 
  3. ^ Brookes, Barbara. "Isabel Annie Aves". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 8 October 2016. 
  4. ^ Faye Hercock: Alice: The Making of A Woman Doctor: 1914-1974: Auckland University Press: 1999: ISBN 1-86940-206-5.
  5. ^ a b "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 29 November 2014. Retrieved 2014-11-21. 
  6. ^ "Abortion Supervisory Committee Deserves Criticism" (Press release). Family First Lobby. 10 June 2008. Archived from the original on 11 June 2008. Retrieved 10 June 2008. The Committee has ignored the original intention of parliament and because of their lack of supervision and inaction, this has effectively led to abortion on demand. 
  7. ^ Steward, Ian (13 August 2007). "Search for missing swimmer called off". The Press. Archived from the original on 12 September 2012. Retrieved 1 October 2008. 
  8. ^ "Early medication abortion: what is it?" (PDF). Abortion Law Reform Association. 2011. Retrieved 16 April 2018. 
  9. ^ http://www.courtsofnz.govt.nz/front-page/cases/abortion-supervisory-committee-v-right-to-life-new-zealand-inc
  10. ^ Backhouse, Matthew (10 August 2012). "Abortion cases not open for review, Supreme Court judges rule". NZHerald. 
  11. ^ Johnstone, Martin (3 July 2010). "MP's bill aims for abortion on demand". New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 3 July 2010. 
  12. ^ "Politics, latest political news and analysis - National". The New Zealand Herald. 
  13. ^ "Copeland, Gordon: General Debate". Hansard Volume:646 Page:15509. New Zealand Government. 9 April 2008. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 
  14. ^ Ainge Roy, Eleanor (5 September 2017). "New Zealand election: Jacinda Ardern pledges to decriminalise abortion". The Guardian. Retrieved 16 April 2018. 

Further reading[edit]

  • McMillan D G (1937). Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Various Aspects of the Problem of Abortion in New Zealand. Government Printer, Wellington. (facsimile scan at ibiblio.org)
  • Pryor, Marilyn (1985). The Right to Live: The Abortion Battle of New Zealand. Auckland: Haelen Books ISBN 0-908630-23-9

External links[edit]