For the past 44 years, women seeking abortions in New Zealand have technically committed a criminal act. But on Wednesday, New Zealand’s parliament voted on a bill that finally decriminalized the medical procedure. Now, women can get an abortion up to 20 weeks in, and after 20 weeks, too, if a health practitioner deems it appropriate.
Terry Bellamark, director of an abortion advocacy group in New Zealand told The Guardian how significant the legislation is. “Finally after 44 years, New Zealand parliament has recognized that women have bodily autonomy — and that is huge,” she said. “Being able to control one’s fertility is key to one’s life — it’s hard to see how we could achieve equality without that.”
In addition to legalizing abortion, the government will now provide abortion counseling to women who want it. Under the old law, women could face penalties of up to 14 years in jail, according to The Guardian. Although no person was ever prosecuted under the law, the threat of punishment forced women in some cases to lie. For instance, the law allowed for abortions in cases for incest and mental illness, or if there’s a risk to the fetus. Due to these allowances, women would say they were experiencing mental illness in order to get an abortion without facing punishment. Under these conditions, about 13,000 women a year received abortions, according to The New York Times.
The justice minister of New Zealand, Andrew Little, pointed to the overriding problem with this system in a piece he wrote for The Guardian. “All along, women seeking an abortion carry the stigma of committing, for the purposes of New Zealand law, a criminal act,” he wrote. Women also needed the approval of at least two doctors under the old law.
The law passed with a 68-51 vote. Originally, it was scheduled to be a public referendum, but because it was deemed a “conscience issue,” members of parliament did not have to vote along party lines, reports the BBC. New Zealand is not known for its regressive policies against women. In 1893, it was the first self-governing country in the world to grant women their voting rights. But opponents of the bill were concerned about some of its ambiguous wording, such as allowing for abortions if “appropriate” after the 20-week mark.
“It will allow for abortion up to the moment of birth,” MP Agnes Loheni told The New York Times. “It is a broad, ill-defined, vague section with no regard to the unborn child.” Other MPs are concerned that abortions will be used for sex selection. The bill requires the government to conduct a study on this practice, and report back the results to parliament in five years.
Margaret Sparrow, 84, is a life-long abortion advocate in New Zealand. She told Time that legalizing abortion has taken as long as it has because women found ways to work around the law and politicians were avoiding a contentious issue. She’s relieved to see this bill pass.
“It will be safer for women and better for access,” she said to Time. “The next stage is making sure it’s implemented.”
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