Abortion Law Reform in New Zealand: Where are the Social Workers?

post by Jessica Steele

I write this with blog in the wake of the referendum on Ireland’s eighth amendment – the abortion referendum. It is being hailed as a landslide victory for the yes (repeal the eighth) campaign. I feel nothing but relief and a renewed resolve to see things change in Aotearoa. My thoughts go immediately to the family and loved ones of Savita Halappanavar. Six years ago, Savita died a wholly preventable death due to sepsis in an Irish hospital as she was miscarrying. She was denied a life-saving termination of pregnancy.

A quick refresher on abortion in New Zealand currently:

Abortion is illegal in New Zealand. It is in the Crimes Act of 1961 and carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison. There are four exceptions that allow for legal abortions:

  1. When “…the continuance of the pregnancy would result in serious danger (not being danger normally attendant upon childbirth) to the life, or to the physical or mental health, of the woman…”;
  2. When the child is at substantial risk of being “…so physically or mentally abnormal as to be seriously handicapped”;
  3. When the pregnancy is the result of incest or sex with a guardian;
  4. In cases where ‘‘…the woman or girl is severely subnormal’’

(Crimes Act 1961, s187A).

The Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977 outlines the specifics around abortion administration. A woman who seeks an abortion must first visit her GP, who must then refer her on to gain the approval of two certifying consultant physicians (these certifying consultant fees have cost the government in excess of $20 million since 2012). If the certifying consultants do not approve, a woman cannot have a legal abortion. 98% of abortion requests are granted (McCulloch & Weatherall, 2017), so it would seem that women in New Zealand have access to a safe – albeit convoluted, time consuming, and expensive means to terminate unwanted pregnancies – though tell that to the 1% of women denied abortions every year (amounting to 252 women denied in 2016).

Many legal scholars discuss the current law in purely academic terms of whether it is a ‘workable’ law (McGee, Jansen, & Sheldon, 2018, Lewis, 2017), that is, does it uphold the rule of law, is it predictable, and does it apply equally to everyone (Lewis, 2017). The current law satisfies none of the above requirements.

  • The Report of the Royal Commission on Abortion (which forms the basis of the current abortion law) stipulates clearly that abortion must not be available ‘on request’, and must only be available in exceptional circumstances. That the law is undoubtedly interpreted more liberally than the 1977 Parliament intended is indicative of its failure to uphold the rule of law and its unworkability.
  • 97% of abortion requests are granted under section 187A(1)(a) the so called “mental health ground”. Women are pathologised to avoid being criminalised for a termination of pregnancy. The term ‘mental health’ is open to interpretation however, and though it is evident that most consultants are employing a definition of mental health more in line with the World Health Organisation, it cannot be assumed that every consultant is using the same interpretation – after all, several hundred women a year are told their abortions are “not justified” and denied services. Because abortion access in New Zealand is highly dependent on physicians’ interpretations and applications of the mental health grounds; the law is unpredictable and women do not know if they will be granted their abortion request. Some women miss out on abortions while others in comparable situations are granted their request, meaning the law is failing to apply equally to everyone (Lewis, 2017).

…and Social Work?

As a beginning social worker, I am asked by my work colleagues to contribute to the current Mental Health and Addiction enquiry, I receive emails from my union entreating me to make submissions to the Social Work Registration bill, and I am reminded continually of the importance of political action and advocacy through my studies at university. Nowhere, and from no one in social work spheres, did I hear about the abortion law reform. This is not to say that the aforementioned submissions are not important, they are vital, but I will admit to being disappointed that a profession that I am so proud to be a part of has been so conspicuously quiet on this topic. A topic of fundamental human rights, the rights of women to determine their own lives! The only time I have ever made a formal submission to government has been about abortion law reform. Submissions closed 18 May, and the Law Commission will report to the Minister of Justice in October.

 Remembering Savita (and all the Savitas throughout history)

In the struggles to create the family we are fortunate to have today, my husband and I experienced Recurrent Pregnancy Loss (multiple miscarriages). Each one was immensely difficult emotionally, physically (financially, socially…). I required medical intervention with several, and the horrific and terrifying notion that my life may be ruled less than that of an embryo never crossed my mind. Savita’s death was (apparently in Ireland, at least) a huge wake-up call about the real human cost of criminalising women’s bodies and choices through abortion laws. I am hopeful that social work as a profession will stand publicly with women in advocating for abortion law reform in New Zealand. I am seeing it beginning with the Re-imagining Social Work blog and Twitter account  Social Workers for Choice Aotearoa  I hope to hear your voice too.  


Lewis, O. (2018). Confronting New Zealand’s’ Workable’ Abortion Laws. (Bachelor of Laws Honour’s thesis). Retrieved from: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3155001

McCulloch, A., & Weatherall, A. (2017). The fragility of de facto abortion on demand in New Zealand Aotearoa. Feminism & Psychology27(1), 92-100.

McGee, A., Jansen, M., & Sheldon, S. (2018). Abortion law reform: Why ethical intractability and maternal morbidity are grounds for decriminalisation. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.

Author: socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand

4 thoughts on “Abortion Law Reform in New Zealand: Where are the Social Workers?”

  1. Fantastic piece Jess. Like you, I too am extremely concerned about the silence from Social Work, as a profession, in this. There are a few lone voices, but nothing at a national level.

    It’s shameful that we are in this situation, and entirely preventable.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Also, minor correction, people can be referred by Family Planning Clinicians, and midwives, (in addition to GPs) although not all clinics accept referrals from midwives (but they should).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, you’re right. Should have amended that to add that (the majority) of referrals come from GP’s (meaning women are normally paying GP fees in addition to the other expenses – travel, accommodation, etc). But Family Planning does referrals as well. And yes, the situation with midwives is another sore point, their referrals are accepted on a hit or miss basis.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow Jess. I really like your blog and I am reminded of your passion from our conversation in the NVivo class (best thing about class that day actually)…I too am surprised that this hasn’t been a topic of discussion and angst in the social work profession. I really hope others, like you, got out and made a submission. I couldn’t believe it when Simon Bridges said publicly that the law was working…umm Simon for whom? I am watching this one closely and really hope we can be as progressive as Ireland (words I never thought I’d say…)

    Liked by 1 person

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