Story: Abortion

Page 5. Abortion: 1990s to 21st century

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In the 1990s the controversy of the 1970s and 1980s waned. Although the law was restrictive, in practice abortion was generally available. Abortion-rights activism wound down. Anti-abortion groups continued to protest, but to little effect.

However, in the 2000s anti-abortion activism increased. New groups were formed, the Abortion Supervisory Committee was challenged in court, and the internet became a base for activity. In the 2010s a wave of pro-abortion activism focused on persuading the government to decriminalise abortion.

Rate of abortion

The rate of abortion climbed through the 1990s and stabilised at around 0.6 per woman from 2002. In international terms, this was a moderate rate – less than England, but more than Germany.

Availability in the 21st century

Access varied from one area of New Zealand to another, and changed over time. In 2018 women up to 19 weeks pregnant were able to have abortions in Wellington and Auckland. A limited service for women over 14 weeks pregnant was provided in Dunedin and Christchurch. In Whanganui, the West Coast and South Canterbury only counselling and referral were available. In other regions abortions were available only in the first trimester.

Abortion picket 

Picketing outside abortion clinics continued. It was one reason Wellington’s Parkview Abortion Clinic moved into the main hospital in 2000. Women were warned that there might be protesters outside, but were assured that there was no way the protesters could know who was coming to the unit. 

Availability of abortion increased with the 2002 introduction of the ‘abortion pill’, mifepristone (RU486). Two doses were required and had to be taken at an abortion clinic. Abortions obtained through the use of the abortion pill are known as 'medical abortions'. In 2018 medical abortions were not available in Whanganui, Northland and South Canterbury. The Tauranga Family Planning clinic provided medical abortions.

Anti-abortion groups

Groups formed in the 1970s continued to be active in the 21st century. In 2004 the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) changed its name to Voice for Life.

Other groups opposed to abortion were Family Life International (founded in 1992), Right to Life New Zealand (1999), Liberty for the Unborn and Pro-life New Zealand (formed in the early 2000s). Anti-abortion groups were often well-funded. Some groups had strong international connections and were concerned with a range of matters including euthanasia and in-vitro fertilisation.

Court challenges

From 2008 Right to Life New Zealand challenged the Abortion Supervisory Committee’s management of abortion in New Zealand in the courts. In 2011 the Court of Appeal ruled that the Abortion Supervisory Committee could not review certifying consultants' decisions (as Right to Life had argued it should), and that there was no foetal right to life.

Advocacy for decriminalisation

In the 2010s the focus of pro-abortion activism shifted to decriminalisation. Under the Crimes Act 1961, provision of an abortion had remained a crime unless approved by two medical consultants (the procedure introduced by the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977). Pro-abortion groups (notably ALRANZ) argued that abortion was a health rather than a criminal issue, and should be decided by the pregnant woman. In 2018 ALRANZ and a group of women who had had abortions took a case to the Human Rights Commission challenging the existing system.

The New Zealand push was part of an international move towards decriminalisation. After more than three decades of avoiding the issue, the New Zealand government considered decriminalisation of abortion in 2018.

Standard methods in the 21st century

The most common method of abortion in the first trimester was dilation and suction curettage. Mifepristone and prostaglandin were used in approximately three-quarters of medical abortions carried out in the first nine weeks of pregnancy. In 2016, 94% abortions were carried out before the end of the 13th week of pregnancy, 6% at 14 weeks and over.

How to cite this page:

Megan Cook, 'Abortion - Abortion: 1990s to 21st century', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/abortion/page-5 (accessed 20 January 2019)

Story by Megan Cook, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 8 Nov 2018