As New Zealand debates whether to decriminalise abortion, newly-released figures show how many people have been charged and convicted since the laws were established.
Data obtained by VICE under the Official Information Act shows since 1988, 32 people have been charged with procuring abortion. Of those, 12 were convicted. The law applies only to people who administer abortions. Women seeking or receiving an abortion cannot be prosecuted.
Under New Zealand law, abortion is still considered a crime — and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wants to change that. In February, she began the process of reforming New Zealand’s abortion law after stating during her campaign that she believed people “need to be able to make their own decisions.”
Opposition leader Simon Bridges told VICE in an emailed statement the National Party’s position was that “abortion laws are working broadly as they should and changing them has not been our focus.”
Court records show that cases have been considered in an array of circumstances.
In 2013, a rural GP known only as “Dr. N” was found guilty by the New Zealand Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal of misconduct and suspended from practise for six months after giving four women drugs to induce abortion.
According to the Otago Daily Times, Dr. N said she was saving her patients "a massive ordeal associated with a trip [for an abortion]," and that it was a "necessary service and she felt justified in her decision”.
In 2016, the police sought to have Dr N’s name suppression removed to investigate whether she had breached the Crimes Act, but the request was denied.
There has been just one conviction for supplying means of procuring abortion. In 2006, police searching the Auckland apartment of Jin Feng Zhu, 24, found large quantities of abortion-inducing medications sent to Zhu by her parents in China. Zhu had sold 44 such pills online in 2005 — mainly to foreign students — with a total value of $28,440. She pleaded guilty to supplying means of procuring abortion and was sentenced to 20 months in prison.
“I’m surprised there were any prosecutions,” said Dr. Rhonda Powell, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Canterbury School of Law. She argued that while dangerous procedures should be outlawed, the criteria for legal abortion should be removed from the Crimes Act.
To get a legal abortion in New Zealand, a woman must see two certified consultants and demonstrate that having a baby would cause “serious danger” to her mental or physical health. Consideration is also given to whether the pregnancy is the result of incest or the baby is likely to be “physically or mentally abnormal.” Sexual assault may be taken into account, but is not itself grounds for a legal abortion.
Many women fail to meet those criteria. Figures obtained by Stuff show the current New Zealand system has resulted in hundreds of abortion requests failing to meet the threshold each year, including 252 “not justified abortion” certificates in 2016.
A determination of “not justified” does not necessarily mean an abortion has been denied; a third consultant could determine the procedure justified and it could go ahead. Figures on the number of abortions denied altogether are not recorded.
At least two convictions for procuring abortion were connected to domestic violence, court records show. In a particularly disturbing incident, Lange Fonoti, 22, kicked his pregnant girlfriend in the stomach, yelling, “I want to kill this baby, I don’t want you to have this baby.” Two weeks later, the woman miscarried. Fonoti received an eight-and-a-half-year sentence for the crime.
According to Statistics New Zealand, there were 12,823 abortions performed in 2016, a drop from 13,155 the year before.
Terry Bellamak, National President of the pro-choice Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand, rejected the argument that women’s exemption from prosecution meant they weren’t affected by the laws. She told VICE the inclusion of abortion in the Crimes Act “increases stigma” around the procedure and further complicates an already “dysfunctional” system.
“The law requires them to jump through so many unnecessary, nonmedical hoops like getting the approval of two certifying consultants,” she said, adding that the delays and stress involved meant some women “give up on getting the health care they need.”
Bernard Moran, a spokesman for pro-life group Voice for Life, said while the organsation did not support taking abortion out of the Crimes Act, it welcomed the debate and thought it was time to reconsider the entire system in New Zealand.
Voice for Life would like to see a lot more independent counselling, he said, including greater discussion of alternatives to abortion.
Outside New Zealand, similar debates are playing out around the world. In Ireland, a historic referendum to decide whether women should be given unrestricted access to abortions before 12 weeks is scheduled for next month. This March, protests broke out in cities across Poland over a government plan to restrict abortion access. Meanwhile, in the US an Indiana appeals court recently deemed an abortion law signed by former governor Mike Pence “unconstitutional,” stating that the law put an “undue burden” on access to abortion.
New Zealand’s Law Commission will hand its advice on abortion law reform to the government in October. Public submissions are open until May 18.