The pro-choice movement has reached a large portion of women who understandably want safe and legal reproductive health rights. Seeking the approval for abortions in New Zealand is complicated, however it is a necessary procedure for many women and the opportunity is not always available. The right to having an abortion is a human right, which has global impacts, such as Trump’s Global Gag Rule, which restricts the access of abortions for many women in America.
After contacting Family Planning’s National Nursing Advisor, Rose Stewart, I have become more educated on the importance of abortions and the opportunity it gives women. This interview was conducted to help anyone in New Zealand who may need an abortion and to create a safe and open dialogue about abortion.
What led you to work in the field of Sexual and Reproductive Health?
“After years of hospital work I wanted to work in primary health. This led me to Family Planning courses and I realised this is where I wanted to work. In my lifetime, two family members had abortions and had to go through a difficult and judgmental processes to get them. I felt I could really learn a lot and that helping people within this critical area of women’s health would be a worthwhile and hugely satisfying career.”
“The people we see at Family Planning are generally very well and healthy and are looking for our help to manage their lives – by getting contraception, cervical screening and STI testing.
How do women in New Zealand access abortions and what is the process like?
“A woman in New Zealand who decides she doesn’t want to continue a pregnancy has a complicated process to navigate. It’s important to remember that much of this process is dictated by abortion being part of the criminal code in this country, not because of any medical necessity.”
“A woman would go to see her doctor (GP) or Family Planning Clinic or Youth Health service and be referred to the licensed abortion provider in her area. She will need to go to get a series of blood and other tests done and will be advised about the different options for her abortion – medical or surgical. There will also be a conversation about her contraceptive needs after the abortion. She will need to speak with two certifying consultants. These are doctors who will decide if her circumstances meet the legal requirements for her abortion to be approved.”
The process of having an abortion is complicated, and it is concerning that women may not approved and therefore have to continue with an unwanted pregnancy. It is important to note that the current New Zealand law allows for abortions for pregnancies under 20 weeks, and a different set of criteria are in place for those after 20 weeks.
“A medical abortion is where the woman takes medication that induces a miscarriage, which tends to happen at home. It happens over a period of time and feels to a large extent like a natural miscarriage. Follow up blood tests are needed after an abortion to make sure it was completed. A surgical abortion may be done with no sedation, under conscious sedation (which means she will be a bit drowsy) or under general anesthetic. Most often, it takes place under conscious sedation. The surgery takes approximately ten minutes. The woman can go home on the same day.”
What barriers or restrictions do women often face during the process? I understand there may be people who oppose abortions and maybe try to convince women to keep the baby instead, does this cause any stress or anxiety?
“We know there are many things that can make it difficult for a woman to access an abortion –lack of services locally, law, stigma, time and cost of multiple visits, and more. Stigma is a major barrier that affects people seeking abortion and yet one in four women will have an abortion in their lifetime. Abortion providers work hard to see people in a timely way and look after them very well under a really out-of-date law, which does not allow for all the best medical practices. There can be delays between seeing the doctor/s and getting to the abortion provider. There may be travel and multiple appointments. People cannot complete the process without having to jump through hoops.”
The statistic of one in four women is very common and it is important to know to avoid the negative stigma that comes with having an abortion. Rose clarifies that the Crimes Act is a massive barrier for women who are looking for safe and legal medical care.
“Abortion is regulated under the Crimes Act in New Zealand. Therefore only institutions licensed under this Act can provide abortions. This applies to medical and surgical abortion. The abortion regulations within the Crimes Act are a major barrier to providing best practice abortion care. Abortion is a health service. Abortion can be provided under the same high standards and best practice guidelines that any other health service is provided. A 2019 Newshub poll showed that 70% New Zealanders want abortion to be decriminalized.”
I hear you Rose! I think having an abortion requires the same care as any other medical practice as well.
“Most people have made their decision to end their pregnancy before they see a health care provider. We know that while most women are certain of their decision they fear being judged and stigmatized and potentially blocked from getting an abortion. “
What are your thoughts on Trump’s Global Gag Rule, which restricts access for women to have safe and legal abortions?
“It’s important to remember that there is no direct impact on New Zealand from the Global Gag Rule. But what it does for us in this geographic area – as it does globally – is to amplify stigma and misinformation about women’s health needs. Tragically, globally, it means women die.”
“The Gag Rule is complex but at its core it denies US funding to agencies and organizations that might provide, refer for or advocate for abortion. It denies funding even if the funding is used for work unrelated to abortion, like education. Many organizations in countries around the world rely heavily on US development funding. The Gag Rule often means a significant loss of resources for organizations doing a broad range of work, from maternity care to HIV prevention. Where abortion is inaccessible, women who find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy are forced to seek illegal and often unsafe abortion. We know that about 26 million unsafe abortions happen globally each year and that as many as 13 per cent of all maternal deaths globally are the result of these unsafe procedures.”
What advice would you give to young women planning on getting an abortion or if they are on the fence of getting one?
“Most women I see are generally very sure about what is right for them at this time without any help from anyone about the decision. When someone is unsure, they might need help in their decision-making. So pre abortion counseling is always available to support people who are unsure what to do if that is what they think would help.”
“If I could give this hypothetical young woman one piece of advice, it would be to talk with their doctor or come to us as soon as she can, so she can get the health care she needs as soon as she possibly can. Seeing a health care provider who can provide non-judgmental support and information saves a lot of anxiety and fear.”