A crucial court decision

In late 1981, a paediatrician, Dr Melvyn Wall, attended a 15-year old girl at Taranaki Base Hospital. He discovered she was pregnant and offered support. Both the girl and her parents were prepared to have the baby adopted out. However, another doctor referred her to two certifying consultants, who authorized an abortion on the grounds that the girl had a serious danger to her mental health.

Dr Wall found himself in a medical bind. He believed the abortion was unjustified and would harm the girl's mental state. On 7th January, 1982, his lawyer filed a motion in the High Court seeking that the abortion certificate be suspended. There was no medical or legal criteria for the abortion and the certifying consultants had issued it in "bad faith".

The case came before Mr Justice Speight in the High Court on 19th January, 1982. He ruled that Dr Wall and the unborn child had no "legal standing". Within 48 hours the abortion was carried out.

In May, the Women's National Abortion Action Committee (WONAAC) laid a complaint with the Medical Practitioners Disciplinary Committee. The Committee found Dr Wall guilty of professional misconduct and ordered that he fined and censured.

He received thousands of letters of support and donations for his costs. In November, the Court of Appeal heard his case, which both sides of the abortion issue knew would be a landmark judgement. It was handed down in December with the Court declaring that the unborn child had no legal statutory rights. "That being the case, neither Dr Wall nor anybody else could possibly claim to represent the interests of the unborn child."

The Court also ruled that the decisions of certifying consultants were immune from the law. Abortion had now become an area where the writ of law did not apply.

Dr Wall could not find employment. He turned to wood-turning in his garage for income and eventually moved with his family to Australia.

By 1983, it was accepted that Parliament's intention with the 1977 Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act was routinely ignored by certifying consultants. The Abortion Supervisory Committee, the statutory body that administered the consultants, repeatedly rejected requests to intervene.

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