Controversy in New Zealand

Any girl or woman who wants an abortion in New Zealand, who is in the first trimester of pregnancy is likely to get one.

  • The Abortion Supervisory Committee has admitted that 98% of first trimester abortions are performed on "pseudo legal grounds".
  • All District Health Boards are required to fund lawful abortions, this is classed as providing a "core service".
  • Stress levels on medical staff in public hospitals are high with staff reluctance to assist at second trimester abortions.
  • Second trimester abortions (between 13 and 20 weeks) cost $1,400 (or more) each.
  • Voice for Life (formerly SPUC) claims that the certifying consultants "rubber stamp" referrals.
  • Voice for Life has also repeatedly accused the ASC of being "cheerleaders for the abortion industry."
A quick overview reveals a satisfactory situation in New Zealand for supporters of abortion rights. Any girl or woman, who tells her GP, or a referral agency that she wants an abortion, is likely to get one in the first trimester of pregnancy.

Should her GP be personally opposed to abortion, he or she is required to refer the woman to another doctor.

The Abortion Supervisory Committee admits that 98% of first trimester abortions are performed on "pseudo legal grounds".

What this means is this: An abortion is legal provided the certifying consultants and the operating surgeon believe that the woman's mental health would be at risk if she had to continue with the pregnancy.

Nobody really believes this would be the case, but the abortion can be approved on those "pseudo legal grounds".

A senior politician explained the situation as it existed in 1999. "The law itself is reasonably strict but in reality any woman can get an abortion if she wants one. Sure it's hypocritical, but it suits people in the House [Members of Parliament] to have it that way." In other words, abortion is such a 'hot' issue that most politicians would prefer to leave the matter alone.

Access to abortion
All District Health Boards are required to fund lawful abortions, as part of their coverage under the national minimum service coverage requirements. This is classed as providing a "core service".

Limited access in some areas is due to a large number of doctors who are against abortion on conscience grounds, and also where local hospitals have not opted to take up a license to perform abortions.
The West Coast and Southland in the South Island, have been cited as areas where access to abortion is limited and women have to travel to the Lyndhurst Clinic in Christchurch. It can be due to a large number of doctors against abortion on conscience grounds, and local hospitals that have not opted to take up a license to perform abortions.

Where lack of funds is a problem, Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ) will cover the travel costs of women to the Lyndhurst Clinic.

Abortion rights supporters want to see access mandated throughout New Zealand, but this conflicts with the conscience clause of the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act. 

Stress levels on medical staff in public hospitals
In February 2003, there was a certain understanding into why staff are reluctant to assist at second trimester abortions. A Ministry of Health directive to the Auckland District Health Board required them to fund second trimester abortions from July.

A committee of the District Health Board had advised the Minister of Health in December 2000 that "clinical staff are reluctant to perform second trimester abortions, particularly social terminations."

"The term 'social abortion' is a colloquial term, used to imply that some legal abortions are not morally acceptable. It is not appropriate for officials to use this term in their professional capacity."
This provoked a rebuke from a senior Ministry of Health official, who advised the Auckland writer: "You make reference to 'social abortions'. The term 'social abortion' is a colloquial term, used to imply that some legal abortions are not morally acceptable. It is not appropriate for officials to use this term in their professional capacity."

"As far as the Government is concerned, there are only two types of abortion in New Zealand: abortions legally sanctioned by Parliament and illegal abortions. Thankfully, to my knowledge, there are none of the other type [i.e., "illegal"]."

Why were clinical staff reluctant to assist? Second trimester abortions are usually performed between 13 and 20 weeks and sometimes further on as necessary. In 2003, patients paid the specialist's fee of $1,200, sometimes more, and the hospital received $600 for the use of facilities.

The obstetrician and gynaecologist surgeons employ a method known as D&C (Dilation and Curettage). The surgeon manually dismembers the baby with a sharpened instrument and pulls the body parts out. The clinical staff (nurses) assist the surgeon by picking up the body parts and re-assembling them like a jigsaw puzzle. This is to ensure that all the human remains are removed from the womb, to prevent infection.

The work can be stressful, and in the United States is a major factor in the high turnover of private clinic staff. As an Obstetrician/Gynaecologist commenteds, "Surgeons wash their hands and walk away, leaving the nurses to clean up".
Although there is the protection of a conscience clause in the NZ CS&A Act,  nurses placed on the roster to assist with 2nd trimester abortions

In New Zealand, nurses can find themselves rostered on to assist with second-trimester abortions. There is the protection of a conscience clause in the CS&A Act, but nurses placed on the roster can be under professional peer pressure to assist.

Surgeons can regard the high fee they receive per abortion, for what is on average fifteen minutes work, as good motivation to perform them, but there are no such incentives for the clinical staff.

Certifying consultants
Certifying consultants receive $89 [as at July 2004] to examine each referral for an abortion and then either decline or approve the application. An average of 1% of referrals are declined, which led to the then Minister of Justice, Phil Goff, publicly musing as to whether the whole process was a waste of resources and money.

For example in 2002, one doctor approved 1,666 abortion requests and did not decline any [at $89 per referral that comes to $148,274].

Voice for Life, formerly the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, claims that the certifying consultants "rubber stamp" referrals. However, the organisation refrains from calling for their abolition, in the hope that a future revamped Abortion Supervisory Committee might insist on rigorous due diligence on each referral, according to the requirements of the CS&A Act.

The Abortion Supervisory Committee (ASC)
This is an independent statutory body that has its performance reviewed each year by Parliament's Justice and Electoral Select Committee.

According to the Associate Minister of Justice, the ASC does not have control, authority, or oversight of the individual decisions of its certifying consultants.
The ASC has a statutory function to appoint certifying consultants, but according to the Associate Minister of Justice, does not have control, authority, or oversight of the individual decisions of its certifying consultants.

This interpretation has been recently challenged by Voice for Life, who argue that Section 14 of the CS&A Act requires the ASC to ensure the effective operation of that Act and the procedures thereunder.

Responsibility for ensuring that there are lawful grounds for an abortion rests with the certifying consultants.

The ASC is also required to "keep under review, all the provisions of the abortion law" and is entitled to recommend to Parliament, or the Government, possible amendments to the CS&A Act.

SPUC has repeatedly accused the ASC of being "cheerleaders for the abortion industry."
This is the heart of the controversy with Voice for Life, who have repeatedly accused the ASC of being "cheerleaders for the abortion industry."

Voice for Life disagreed with the ASC's 2000 report, which stated that abortion should be decriminalized and become an integral part of women's health services. The ASC's recommendation was that the decision to have an abortion should be made only by a woman and her doctor.

Voice for Life argued that the ASC was going completely beyond its brief, by attempting to strike out completely, the law giving rights to the unborn child. Voice for Life also noted that the ASC in its annual reports never refers to the unborn child.