Judge reserves abortion decision

A High Court judge has reserved his decision on a bid for a declaration on the powers of the government-appointed Abortion Supervisory Committee (ASC).

Today's hearing before Justice Forrest Miller in the High Court at Wellington was the latest step in a four-year civil case taken by anti-abortion group Right to Life which sought clarification on the ASC's powers, the lawfulness of abortions being carried out, and the rights of the unborn child.

It had pursued the issue through the courts since May 2005 with the ASC defending the claim.

Following numerous appeals on evidence over three years, the case was heard before Justice Miller in April last year.

Right to Life had complained that the committee had failed to properly interpret its powers under the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act so "full regard is given to the rights of unborn children".

The group said more information on the number of abortions being carried out on mental health grounds - about 98 percent of all abortions - was required.

It also sought to find if the committee had failed in its duty to ensure adequate counselling facilities were available.

In his judgment released last June, Justice Miller found the ASC could scrutinise consultants' decisions as part of its role in keeping the procedure for authorising abortions under review.

He said the abortion law was being used more liberally than Parliament intended and the ASC had misinterpreted its statutory powers.

The ASC should require better record-keeping from consultants and review the procedures for authorising abortions, he said.

Despite this, the law did not recognise a foetus' right to life, Justice Miller said.

ASC appealed the decision and Right to Life cross-appealed, but the Court of Appeal dismissed both parties' appeals in May, saying the case was outside its jurisdiction.

The parties were told to return to the High Court for a declaration on what powers Parliament had intended for the ASC.

During submissions in court today, Right to Life's counsel Peter McKenzie QC said it was important that Justice Miller make declaratory orders recognising the ASC's role as advocates for the unborn child, but Justice Miller questioned whether that was the committee's role.

The ASC's counsel, Cheryl Gwyn, acknowledged the committee had misapprehended its statutory powers but said declarations were not needed as Justice Miller's June 2008 judgment "could be left to speak for itself".

The court battle has so far cost the public $279,850.55, ASC told pro-choice group Abortion Law Reform Association New Zealand (ALRANZ) after an Official Information Act request.

Outside court, Right to Life spokesman Ken Orr told NZPA the group had spent about $80,000 on its side of the case, which was funded by donations from members.

Mr Orr said the ideal outcome of the case would be for Justice Miller to make a declaratory order stating a serious concern about the lawfulness of many abortions in New Zealand.

The ASC was not in court today and had no comment to make, a Ministry of Justice spokesman said.

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