Judge questions legality of abortions

[comment caption=Do you think NZ has "abortion on demand"?]Women's health advocates have struck back at anti-abortion lobbyists' claims New Zealand has "abortion on demand".

In a judicial review of the workings of the Abortion Supervisory Committee released today, Justice Forrest Miller said there was reason to doubt the legality of many abortions.

The review was initiated by Right to Life New Zealand, which argued New Zealand had an "abortion on demand" system, which was unlawful.

Under New Zealand law, abortions can only be granted if a certifying consultant confirms the continuance of the pregnancy would result in serious danger to the mother's life or health.

At a hearing in April, Right to Life's lawyer said the committee was not supervising the work of certifying consultants as it should, which had led to abortion on request.

However, the committee's lawyer said legally it was not allowed to interfere with consultants' medical decisions.

Statistics New Zealand figures showed 17,930 abortions were induced in 2006. The average age of a woman having an abortion was 25.

Women's Health Action Trust director Jo Fitzpatrick said the idea New Zealand had abortion on demand was "ridiculous".

Women had to see two certifying consultants before receiving authorisation for an abortion.

"In order to get to that point they have to see another medical practitioner for a referral and deal with any moral judgments they may have.

"By law, they also must be offered counselling.

"Depending on where they live, women may then find that they have to travel long distances and organise to stay away from home because while DHBs are all obliged to provide access to services, many of these contract out the actual service," Ms Fitzpatrick said.

"This is a decision which is never taken lightly and is every woman's right to exercise."

Ms Fitzpatrick said the trust would welcome a revision of the existing law.

"We would see this as moving to decriminalise abortion and improving access to services so that this difficult decision is easier and not harder for women.

"This is clearly not the intent of the Right to Life organisation."

Family Planning chief executive Jackie Edmond said it was hard to see what the impact of today's High Court ruling would be at this stage, but the organisation was concerned about any decision that might slow the process for women.

"The reality for us is that the two certifying consultants are two more barriers for women and if there are extra restraints put on some of the ground that could make it even more time consuming and difficult for women.

"We're disappointed with this judgment because the Right to Life organisation is really trying to restrict access to abortion. This is their motivation and that is not something we support."

Right to Life spokesman Ken Orr welcomed the ruling, saying it marked the most important development in abortion legislation in New Zealand in 30 years.

Mr Orr said Justice Miller had acknowledged the country had abortion on request.

"Right to Life is confident that the committee will fulfil its statutory duty by holding consultants accountable for the lawfulness of the abortions that they authorise, stopping abortion on demand and questioning consultants on the use of mental health grounds for the authorising of 98 percent of abortions," he said.

Mr Orr said the first duty of the state was to protect the human rights of all citizens "from conception to natural death".

He said there was an "urgent need" for the Government to amend legislation to recognise "the status of unborn children as human beings endowed by their creator at conception with human rights, the foundation right being a right to life."

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