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Q+A: Justice Minister Andrew Little interviewed by Jack Tame

JACK But we begin with the government's plan to reform abortion laws. Despite the fact there are around 13,000 abortions every year in Aotearoa, terminating a pregnancy sits under the Crimes Act. If the law passes, not only will abortion be legal, but women will be able to make the choice for themselves, up to 20 weeks of pregnancy. It'll be a massive shift in the law and a conscience vote for our MPs. Justice Minister Andrew Little is with us this evening. Tena koe. Welcome to Q+A. Why did you decide upon this option?

ANDREW We had the objective of shifting the whole abortion issue from the criminal framework to a health framework. But we needed a law that we give ourselves the best chance of getting it through Parliament. So we have got the Royal Commission report. I said from the outset I thought that option C pretty much struck the right kind of approach. But we have left the gestation threshold at 20 weeks, as opposed to the Law Commission's recommended 22 weeks. But it achieves the objective that we want. And I am confident that will mean that we have got the best chance of getting the best support across Parliament.

JACK Why not 22 weeks? Was that a New Zealand First concession?

ANDREW Look, there are a lot of issues that came up in discussions across all parties, including Opposition MPs as well. In the end, look, when you look at the statistics, 98% of abortions happen in the period up to 16 weeks; a very small fraction up to 20 weeks. And then last year, of the 13,200-odd abortions that were carried out, 57 happened after 20 weeks, so it’s very few.

JACK It’s very few, but is that a New Zealand First concession? Were they the ones who were concerned about that 22-week threshold or did the Law Commission recommend that?

ANDREW Look, it didn't come from one party alone or one, you know, MP alone. It was an issue that came up in discussion. And there was legitimate question, even though the Law Commission had recommended 22 weeks – why, when we have a threshold of 20 weeks. And why, when you look at when in the term of pregnancies of New Zealand women, abortions are taking place, why change what we’ve got at the moment? People know 20 weeks. People generally are comfortable with 20 weeks. It seems to work, so we left it at that.

JACK National MP Chris Penk says the changes mean you are, ‘liberalising abortion right up to birth.’ Is he right?

ANDREW No, that’s an absurd sort of statement that gets made by the fanatic anti-abortion people. There’s no such thing as abortion right up to birth; you know, a foetus that leaves the womb at birth is called a birth. So let’s get that right. The reality is when you look at when abortions happen for New Zealand women, the bulk of them happen up to 16 weeks. Actually, 90% happen in the first trimester.

JACK The vast majority of pregnancies after 22 weeks are on medical grounds. They’re described as being crisis pregnancies.

ANDREW Very extreme circumstances.

JACK But if, hypothetically speaking, a woman was to go to her doctor after 22 weeks with no medical complications and say, 'I don't want to have this baby. I want to have an abortion,' and the doctor agrees, is there anything to stop that from happening?

ANDREW Well, the health professional carrying it out will have an obligation to be satisfied that the abortion was appropriate, given the woman’s physical and mental health, as well as her wellbeing.

JACK But that’s one doctor. So that’s different to the previous law, where you needed two medical professionals, right? I’m just getting into the detail of it.

ANDREW Yes, that’s correct. Yes.

JACK So, purely hypothetically, and I appreciate that you say the circumstance would be extremely uncommon, if a woman were to go to a doctor after 22 weeks and say, 'I want an abortion,' and the doctor was to say yes, there is nothing to stop that from happening?

ANDREW Well, except that the health professional is subject to that statutory obligation. And we can help with these arguments at the margins, but the reality is those sorts of arguments come down to one proposition, and that the reason they get put up is they come from people who really don't trust women to make a decision. The reality is right now women are making that decision. They have to go through a lot of hoops to do so, and they are stigmatised by knowing that what they’re doing is in the first instance a crime. And that should not be the case. Many other jurisdictions around the world are getting abandoning that framework and are putting in place sensible, responsible regimes to deal with this issue.

JACK Just again, though, just getting into the detail of the law, under the law as you have proposed, how late can an abortion go?

ANDREW Well, under the law at the moment, you can have an abortion after 20 weeks, but there is a statutory threshold that applies. But when you look at it, the reality is, once you get to 20 weeks, you are dealing with very, very small numbers of women, and you’re dealing with pregnancies that are hugely troubled; that is either compromising the woman's health or the foetus' health is deeply comprised. The bulk of abortions happen in the first trimester and with another 8% or so up to 16 weeks.

JACK So if that is the case – if the women who are choosing to have abortions after 20 weeks on medical grounds or because of a poor diagnosis for the baby or for the foetus, isn't it cruel to put them through another legal hoop through which they have to jump in order to access an abortion? If these women are going through a traumatic experience as it is – a particularly traumatic experience, given how far they are through the pregnancy – isn’t that unfair?

ANDREW What the figures tell us right now is that, at the point of 20 weeks, it is very rare and they are very extreme circumstances in which a woman is seeking an abortion.

JACK Which is all the more reason. So why are we making those women jump through an extra hoop?

ANDREW They can either go to their GP or they can self-refer to a health professional who carries out abortions. That health professional is subject to the statutory test. But the reality is, figures tell us now that they are very extreme circumstances in which, at that stage of a pregnancy, a women would seek abortion. And I think that’s where you also have to say, this is where, actually you do have to trust women. Women are quite capable of making this decision. With all the value judgements that go with it, the emotions that go with it, all the considerations they have to take into account, they’re quite capable of making that decision.

JACK With that being said, do you expect that, per capita, there will be an increase in the number of abortions in New Zealand?

ANDREW No, I don’t expect that. What I do think we will see is that abortions will, on average, happen earlier in pregnancies in New Zealand than is currently the case.

JACK Why ban protesters from outside medical centres?

ANDREW Well, there is not a ban on protesters. What we have put in the proposed bill is the ability, on a case-by-case, abortion-clinic-by-abortion-clinic basis, reserved the right to regulate to prevent women and the health practitioners from being harassed and intimidated and abused by people who would see it as an opportunity to protest.

JACK Are you preventing speech? Isn’t that a prevention of speech? Don't they have the right to protest?

ANDREW Look, they can express their views, they can do whatever they like, and they can do it 150m away from a clinic. But they should not be intimidating and harassing people who are already under immense stress at the time anyway.

JACK Have you done the numbers?

ANDREW Look, I don't have precise numbers. But what I do know is, from the consultations that I have had, including with the National Party, is I think we have got a good chance of getting a majority on Thursday. I hope we do, because I think, if the bill passes its first reading, gets to a select committee, that is the opportunity for a fulsome public debate and examination of the proposed law, and we can come back to it in the subsequent readings.

JACK What Labour MPs do you expect will not vote for this or will abstain?

ANDREW Well, it’s not for me to name names. And this is a conscience issue. MPs will make up their own minds. There will be Labour MPs who will vote against this – I understand that. But there are National MPs will vote for it.

JACK What Labour MPs have told you they will vote against it?

ANDREW Look, it’s not for me to disclose those sorts of details. MPs are quite capable of voting the way they wish and expressing their view publicly the way they wish to do so.

JACK All right. Thank you for your time this evening, Justice Minister Andrew Little.

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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