a short history on abortion

Harvey henderson

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In the world arena, little New Zealand has always punched far beyond its humble weight regarding human rights and social liberty. We were the first to give women the vote. We were the first country in oceania to legalise same-sex marriage. And in recent years, retrospective actions have to been taken to try and fix the mistakes that were made in our colonial past.

But there remains a social issue where arguably we lag behind. That issue is abortion. It is a topic that has not been dealt with comprehensively, it has been swept under the rug by numerous governments. The fact it is still a criminal offence in New Zealand seems to go against our image as a bastion of human rights.

This topic understandably brings out fierce debate between people of all ideologies, and may be some time before full legislative action is taken. But in the interim it worth exploring why abortion found its way into the Crimes Act, and ask the question: Does is still deserve to be there?

Old Social Attitudes

The first notion of abortion and criminalisation was introduced in New Zealand in 1866. Our colonisation by British settlers meant that Christianity, more specifically the Anglican Church, influenced much of our early legislation. The 1866 law on abortion reflected the non-secularity nature of New Zealand at the time. Like most Western religions, the Anglican Church maintained that life began at conception, so the act of abortion violated the Commandment Thou shalt not kill. This explains why abortion was originally outlawed.
As time went on, views around abortion softened and slowly the procedure began to be treated as a health issue. An enquiry in 1936 found that one in five pregnancies resulted in an abortion. They also found that some women were abused by illegal practitioners of abortion.

Shockingly, the enquiry also found that New Zealand had one of the highest death rates from abortion in the western world, stemming from the prevalence of illegal practices. This Report was widely publicised at the time. It sparked a discussion in the country regarding abortion While there was backlash from conservative and religious organisations, it raised awareness and sympathy for the plight of women in such situations.

The last major legislative change to abortion in New Zealand was the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977. This allowed for abortion to be performed on a set of grounds outlined in the Act such as to save the woman's life, or preserve their mental health.

The fact that we have these exceptions in a separate act specifically designed to deal with medical issues seems to support the idea that abortion should not be in the Crimes Act. This is an example of the progress society has made in terms of how we view such issues. The trend is from conservative condemnation, to a more liberal acceptance.

A New Outlook

The New Zealand of 1961 is not the New Zealand of 2018. While such a statement may appear as a simple expression of the linear nature of time, it does contain a deeper point. Many things which at some point in time were condemned by society are now completely acceptable. Women can vote. Homosexuality was in fact illegal until the Homosexual Law Reform Act was passed in 1986.

The fact abortion is still in the Crimes Act raises a few issues.

The fact that abortion has the same moral stigma as murder and other violent crimes seems unnecessary, and perhaps even cruel. It seems like a blanket judgment on a contextual subject. With a strong shift towards secularity, it seems odd that historical christian morals still underpin this legislation.

In fact, declarations of “no religion” increased from 29.6% in 2001 to 41.9% in 2013 - it seems clear that legislation with such traditional roots does not reflect the societal context of today’s New Zealand.

Alongside the lack of our religious association, abortion procedures have not been prosecuted since the 20th C (is this correct?). This is likely because abortions are largely dealt with as a health issue under the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977.

Why is it not prosecuted? Perhaps the simplest answer is that society has no interest in doing so. Many would consider a waste of time and resources. While this isn’t conclusive, the inference can be drawn that many do not see it as a crime at all. Therefore It seems unnecessary for abortion to be legislated in the Crimes Act, and is perhaps nothing more than a relic of a past we’d long since forgotten.

Where To Go From Here?

Abortion is not murder, it is abortion. It has its own offence under the Crimes Act. If it was in fact murder in would be dealt with under those sections. It is ultimately an issue of health, and parliament has already recognised this. Therefore, the next logical step would be to remove it from the Crimes Act.

The fact that it is still there is arguably offensive and inappropriate, and an inaccurate representation of our modern morality.

Who we once were is not who we are now.