On 18th March 2020, the Abortion Legislation Act 2020 was passed in New Zealand. The bill, sponsored by Andrew Little, brought about long needed changes to the process of accessing abortion in New Zealand. Abortion has now been removed from the Crimes Act 1961, and made accessible for any person who is under 20 weeks pregnant. Close to six months on from the law change, I spoke with Jackie Edmond, Chief Executive of Family Planning, to find out what’s changed now in New Zealand and how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected access during this time.
The law change passed on 18th March 2020 and in the week following, New Zealand entered lockdown for the first time. It was a challenging time to begin the process of implementing the new law, however, it did provide opportunities for Family Planning to support people seeking abortions during the lockdown. The law now allows anyone to self-refer for abortion, where previously, they would need to be signed off by two certified consultants and provide a reason for the abortion. Family Planning themselves only offer abortions in Tauranga, where they are contracted to do so. In the rest of the country, abortions are provided by the District Health Boards (DHBs).
Family Planning are accessible and knowledgeable on where to go to when you need an abortion. Consultations during lockdown were virtual or completed over the phone and those seeking abortion were now able to go home with the required medicine after one appointment. Abortions are an essential health service and so at Alert Level Four, it was the usual process – just now with PPE gear and masks. However, the lockdown added further complications for many processes. The new law changes have meant that DHB providers and Family Planning have had to adapt to new legislation and processes, whilst also navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. Edmond tells me that many women were also concerned about being able to have consultations privately when at home during the lockdown and this added extra stress.
The new law has made huge changes to how people can access abortion in New Zealand and Edmond is confident that with time, providers will adapt to the law further and abortion will be more accessible where it is needed. Already, the process is more streamlined. However, there are still barriers, the largest being geographic access. Currently, there is no local abortion provider in South Auckland and most people seeking abortion have to travel to Central Auckland, even where this process is a consultation and a prescription for the necessary pills. Furthermore, some GPs and primary care practitioners conscientiously object to providing abortion services. While this is allowed under the law, these medical professionals must inform patients of this and direct them to the closest abortion service. In future, Family Planning hope to further provide abortion services, but will need the funding and contracts to do so.
There is further work to do in increasing safe access for all reproductive health needs. Firstly, the current legislation has no provisions for safe zones. A ‘safe zone’ around an abortion clinic provides safety for those accessing abortion from protestors. Unfortunately, this is still an issue seen around abortion clinics today. Edmond would like to see better access and funding for relationship and sexuality education as well as better funding for IUDs and more testing for STIs. Lastly, Family Planning themselves have not had a funding increase for twelve years and, as wait times for appointments can sometimes take weeks, it is vital that their funding increases to support reproductive health in New Zealand.
Finally, Edmond tells us her advice for those who want to access abortion or other reproductive health needs: There is lots of information on the Family Planning website or abortion.org.nz. You can always ring us for an appointment, and we do appointments over the phone! If you know you need an abortion, you can ring the Auckland abortion provider directly and refer yourself.