Newly released review sets out way to make abortion a health rather than criminal matter

Andrew Little, New Zealand’s justice minister, is overseeing changes to abortion laws. Photograph: Pool/Getty Images

Pro-choice advocates in New Zealand have welcomed a law review exploring ways to decriminalise abortion and treat it as a health issue instead.

Advocates called the report “amazing” and said its recommendations were long overdue.

The review recommends three alternative approaches to abortion law. The first – called model A and favoured by pro-choice campaigners – would remove all specific regulation of abortion and see it treated like any other health service. A further two options include a “statutory test” that would require a health professional to be convinced an abortion “is appropriate”.

Terry Bellamak, director of ALRANZ Abortion Rights Aotearoa, said model A was the only option that would make accessing abortion a more streamlined and dignified experience for women, many of whom found the existing system “degrading”.

“Model A is clearly superior because it treats abortion as a health issue like any other, and does not place unnecessary barriers between pregnant people and abortion care,” Bellamak said.

The review found health practitioners and professional bodies were “almost unanimous” in their support for model A.

Under New Zealand law, abortion is a crime and legal only in cases of incest, “mental subnormality” or foetal abnormality, or where the physical or mental health of the mother is at serious risk. Other factors that may be taken into consideration but are not grounds in themselves include “sexual violation” and “extremes of age”.

The justice minister, Andrew Little, said on Friday the legislation governing abortion was “outdated” and New Zealand needed to follow reforms elsewhere such as Ireland and the Australian state of Queensland in making abortion easier to access.

Compared with other countries New Zealand women face long delays in obtaining abortions. Little said it was “disturbing” to read of women being forced to go through with unwanted pregnancies.

In England and Wales in 2017, 77% of abortions were carried out before 10 weeks, the safest period in which to terminate, while in New Zealand in the same year only 59% of abortions met that criterion.

A 2009 study found New Zealand women were waiting an average of 25 days for an abortion.

Opposition to the government’s reform plans was “a certainty”, said Little, but starting the debate was also necessary for women’s wellbeing. “It is a very sensitive issue and it does tend to generate a fairly polarising debate, and it’s a conscious issue for MPs and even within parties there are very different views,” Little said.

“But I think it is very timely to look at the law and ask ourselves whether it is fit for the 21st century. Other countries have been doing it [reform] and are doing it, and I think it’s right for New Zealand to be doing it now.”

Other reforms suggested by the review include allowing women to access abortion services directly rather than being referred by a doctor, removing restrictions on who can perform abortions and where, and removing the requirement for two “certifying consultants” to approve it.

Despite the restrictions, abortion is common in New Zealand but rates have been steadily declining for more than 10 years, which is thought to be due to wider use of long-term contraceptives and significantly fewer teenage pregnancies.

International evidence suggests restrictive abortion laws do not reduce the number of abortions taking place but increase the proportion that are unsafe, the report states.

In countries with highly restrictive abortion laws the risks associated with illegal abortions are high. The World Health Organization estimates 47,000 woman die each year from unsafe abortions, with a further five million suffering permanent disability.