by Terry Bellamak

Refresh my memory – didn’t New Zealand reform its abortion laws a few months ago?

Wasn’t there something in there about qualified health practitioners (not just doctors) being allowed to provide abortions? 

And something about changing the rules so early surgical abortions, which are safer than getting your wisdom teeth removed, didn’t have to be provided in expensive, scary, full-on surgical theatres suitable for open heart surgery?

You wouldn’t know it from reading the Interim Standards for Abortion Services in New Zealand. This is the rulebook for providing abortions. Section 16 of the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act 1977 gives it the force of law.

They read like someone did a cut-and-paste job on the old Standards, and deleted the bits about the Crimes Act and certifying consultants. Law reform was much more than that. 

Among other things, it enlarged the circle of people who can provide abortion care from doctors-only to qualified health practitioners, which includes properly trained nurse practitioners and midwives. Research has demonstrated qualified health practitioners can provide care with the same excellent safety record as doctors.

The new law also removed the requirement that early surgical abortions be provided in full-on surgical theatres, which is unnecessary. Experience in other OECD countries, like Australia the USA, shows early surgical abortions can be provided safely in settings like community health clinics and doctors’ surgeries. New Zealand’s experience during the Covid-19 crisis shows early medical abortions can be provided safely at home, via telemedicine.

But these interim standards do not mention anyone but doctors providing abortions. It sets no rules or standards for medical competency for any providers except doctors. They do not set out requirements for places where abortion can be provided, except to reiterate the old standards, i.e. full surgical theatre.

This is tantamount to making early surgical abortion unlawful unless provided by a doctor in a full-on surgical theatre. Wasn’t that one of the things that was supposed to change under the new law?

Granted, the Ministry of Health has been pretty busy of late. But New Zealand has medical professionals, experienced doctors and nurses, capable of doing a much better job revising the standards, even at short notice. Why were they not allowed to be of service? Is this patch protection on the part of the Ministry of Health?

The main problem we have with the interim standards is this: they do not follow the law. This is not the law reform New Zealanders fought for over 50 years for.

If you agree that this isn’t good enough, let your MP know.