The Abortion Supervisory Committee (ASC)

The Abortion Supervisory Committee (ASC) in New Zealand consists of three members who are responsible for keeping under review, all the provisions of the abortion law in New Zealand.

  • There is usually considerable lobbying over the candidates with party politics having much influence.
  • The ASC is responsible to the Minister of Justice, because abortion statutes provide an exception (under the Crimes Act) to the laws of homicide.
  • The ASC has advocated the repeal of laws to allow abortion to be a matter between the woman and her doctor.
  • While it has admitted that "abortion on demand" exists, the ASC maintains that its powers are limited.
  • "There is clear evidence that the [ASC] sees its role to do as little as possible, and to turn a blind eye to the obvious."
The Abortion Supervisory Committee was established when Parliament passed the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act in 1977.

The ASC operates under the Tribunals Division of the Department of Courts. It's members are responsible for keeping under review, all the provisions of the abortion law in New Zealand.

The ASC also reviews the operation and effect of those provisions.

Recruiting ASC members
The ASC consists of three members; two of whom are required to be registered medical practitioners. One member is appointed Chairperson. Appointments are for a three-year term.

The Committee is appointed by the Governor General upon the recommendations of Parliament. There is usually considerable lobbying over the candidates with party politics having much influence.

Nominations are called for by the House and the usual practice is for candidates to submit CVs and then be interviewed.

The Governor General may remove a member of the ASC upon a request from the House for the following reasons: disability, bankruptcy, neglect of duty, or misconduct.
It has become a convention for nominations not to be considered in an election year.

It has become a convention for nominations not to be considered in an election year, even though this is not required by law or regulation. There is a possibility in an election year that a vacancy may arise when the House is not in session. Then the Governor General may make an appointment and have it confirmed within two months of the House commencing the next session. The House has the option of declining the appointment.

The ASC is responsible to the Minister of Justice, because abortion statutes provide an exception (under the Crimes Act) to the laws of homicide. The conduct of the ASC is monitored and investigated by the members of Parliament's Justice and Electoral Committee.

Duties and functions of the ASC
These are defined in Section 14 of the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977:

  1. The Supervisory Committee shall have the following functions:
    • To keep under review all the provisions of the abortion law, and the operation and effect of those provisions in practice:
    • To receive, consider, grant, and refuse applications for licences or for the renewal of licences under this Act, and to revoke any such licence:
    • To prescribe standards in respect of facilities to be provided in licensed institutions for the performance of abortions:
    • To take all reasonable and practicable steps to ensure-
      1. That licensed institutions maintain adequate facilities for the performance of abortions; and
      2. That all staff employed in licensed institutions in connection with the performance of abortions are competent:
    • To take all reasonable and practicable steps to ensure that sufficient and adequate facilities are available throughout New Zealand for counselling women who may seek advice in relation to abortion:
    • To recommend maximum fees that may be charged by any person in respect of the performance of an abortion in any licensed institution or class of licensed institutions, and maximum fees that may be charged by any licensed institution or class of licensed institutions for the performance of any services or the provision of any facilities in relation to any abortion:
    • To obtain, monitor, analyse, collate, and disseminate information relating to the performance of abortions in New Zealand:
    • To keep under review the procedure, prescribed by sections 32 and 33 of this Act, whereby it is to be determined in any case whether the performance of an abortion would be justified:
    • To take all reasonable and practicable steps to ensure that the administration of the abortion law is consistent throughout New Zealand, and to ensure the effective operation of this Act and the procedures thereunder:
    • From time to time to report to and advise the Minister of Health and any district health board established by or under the New Zealand Public Health and Disability Act 2000 on the establishment of clinics and centres, and the provision of related facilities and services, in respect of contraception and sterilisation:
    • To report annually to Parliament on the operation of the abortion law.

  2. The Supervisory Committee shall have all such reasonable powers, rights, and authorities as may be necessary to enable it to carry out its functions.

  3. The ASC appears to be mainly concerned with determining that legal abortion services are freely available throughout NZ.
    The politics of the ASC
    The first chairwoman of the ASC, Dame Augusta Wallace, held to a strict interpretation of the Act, but found the task of gaining compliance increasingly difficult and onerous. Her successors took a more liberal approach and in time the ASC appeared to be mainly concerned with determining that legal abortion services were freely available throughout New Zealand.

    The ASC is generally appreciative of abortion providers and has on occasion advocated repealing the CS&A Act, to allow abortion to be a matter between the woman and her doctor.

    Groups and organisations opposed to abortion periodically complain that the ASC permits the Act to be flouted, and while it has admitted that "abortion on demand" exists, the Committee maintains that its powers are limited.

    In 1988 the Abortion Supervisory Committee told Parliament that "potentially normal pregnancies" were being terminated on pseudo-legal grounds.

    Parliament and the ASC
    Abortion has always been a divisive issue and that it is reflected in the voting blocs within Parliament and the Justice and Electoral Select Committee.
    Once a year, the ASC reports to the Justice Committee and are questioned on their activities and performance of their statutory duties.

    In 1995 Dr Christine Forster, chairperson of the ASC, told the Justice and Law Reform Parliamentary Select Committee that New Zealand has abortion on demand, and that certifying consultants were "using mental health as the grounds to provide abortion on demand."

    Once a year, the ASC reports to the Justice Committee and are questioned on their activities and performance of their statutory duties.

    Murray Smith, a lawyer and United Future MP, is a committed opponent to abortion and a member of the Justice and Electoral Select Committee. In an address in August, 2004, he gave an insight into the Committee's dealings with the ASC.

    "As a member of the Justice and Electoral Select Committee, I have attacked both in committee reports and speeches in the House, the inadequacy of the Abortion Supervisory Committee's performance. Something all of the Justice Committee in fact agrees upon."

    "There is clear evidence that the Abortion Supervisory Committee sees its role to do as little as possible, and to turn a blind eye to the obvious. This was reflected in the Audit Office's report to the Select Committee which stated rather scathingly:

    ‘The ASC report does not present information that would enable the (J&E) Committee to form a view on how, or how well, its functions are being discharged.'

    ‘Since it appears that it will not collect such information (notwithstanding the Committee's expressed view on the matter), the Committee appears to have little choice other than to question the ASC in detail on what it actually does, and to form its own view about whether or not, those procedures comply with the Act and constitute good performance.'
    The ASC claims that it would be unethical to enquire into the kind of counselling provided in the clinics.


    The 2003 ASC Report
    In their 2003 Report, the ASC attempts to defend itself against criticism. It claims that it would be unethical to enquire into the kind of counselling provided in the clinics and commends those who train the counsellors: "The Supervisory Committee regularly visits institutions and clinics and continues to be impressed with the professional competence and quality of the counselling services provided."

    The ASC acknowledges recruiting problems in the clinics: "The Supervisory Committee continues to have concerns about workforce recruitment and retention. Level J Unit in Wellington and Lyndhurst Clinic in Christchurch, are recruiting overseas doctors who are prepared to be certifying consultants and to operate. They are also recruiting nurses from overseas to provide services, because there are not enough New Zealand graduates who are prepared to do this work."

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