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22 July 2008
In Right to Life New Zealand Inc v The Abortion Supervisory Committee the High Court of New Zealand reviewed the state of abortion law and the rights of the unborn in New Zealand, an area which the court aptly described as “socially divisive”. Right to Life New Zealand Inc applied for judicial review of the actions of the Abortion Supervisory Committee, claiming that the committee was failing to ensure that the statutory test for lawful abortions was being applied properly and consistently.
Women in New Zealand do not have a constitutional or statutory right to abortion on request. An abortion is lawful only if it carried out in accordance with the Contraception, Sterilization and Abortion Act 1977.
Killing an unborn child is a crime under Section 182 of the Crimes Act 1961. Sections 182 and 186 provide that procuring a miscarriage or supplying the means of procuring an abortion are also crimes if done unlawfully. The term 'unlawfully' is defined in Section 187A of the act, which stipulates that an abortion will not be unlawful if performed earlier than 20 weeks into the pregnancy and in the belief that:
An abortion is lawful after 20 weeks' gestation only if the person performing it believes that it is necessary to save the life of the woman or prevent serious permanent injury to her physical or mental health.
A medical practitioner is able to carry out abortions lawfully if he or she acts under a certificate issued by two consultants licensed under the Contraception, Sterilization and Abortion Act. The certifying consultants may issue a certificate in the prescribed form if they decide in the particular case that one of the grounds in Section 187A of the Crimes Act applies. The decision to authorize an abortion was described in an earlier Court of Appeal decision as “a medical assessment, pure and simple”.
Despite the express legal standard, the abortion rate in New Zealand (231 abortions for every 1,000 births, stillbirths and abortions in 2006) is high relative to other low-fertility countries and comparable to those of Canada and the United States, where women have a constitutional right to abortion. Certifying consultants approve around 99% of all formal requests for abortions. Almost all certificates are issued on the ground of serious danger to the mother’s mental health.
The Contraception, Sterilization and Abortion Act established the Abortion Supervisory Committee. The express functions and powers of the committee are to:
The committee noted in its 2000 annual report that the act is “not being followed as the law intended” and is “not being consistently applied throughout the country”. However, as a result of an earlier Court of Appeal decision relating to the non-reviewable nature of individual clinical judgements by certifying consultants, it had concluded that it had to accept whatever interpretation of the act was being applied by individual consultants in practice, irrespective of concerns that the law was not being correctly or consistently applied.
The applicant sought judicial review on the grounds that the committee had failed to:
The court began its analysis of the application by considering whether unborn children have a legal right to life. It held that Section 8 of the Bill of Rights Act 1990 (on the right to life) does not apply to unborn children and that abortion law does not establish a legal right to life for an unborn child. However, by enacting the Contraception, Sterilization and Abortion Act, which limits the circumstances in which abortions may be performed, the legislature recognized that the unborn have “a claim on the conscience of the community”.
The court considered that there was “reason to doubt the lawfulness of many abortions authorized by certifying consultants”, with the result that the committee had been put on inquiry. The court held that the committee had misinterpreted its powers and functions under the abortion statutes. It found that the committee should use its powers to require consultants to keep proper records and to report on cases that they have certified, allowing it to form its own hindsight opinion on the lawfulness of consultants’ decisions for the purposes of performing its statutory functions of:
In this judicial review application the court was confronted with an apparent contrast between the provisions of the statute, which permit abortions only on limited medical grounds, and the manner of its routine application in practice. It decided that adopting a 'hands-off' and deferential approach to individual certification decisions amounted to a failure by the committee to discharge its statutory duties. The court drew a distinction between an individual authorization (which was not reviewable by the committee) and the overall quality of decision making by licensed consultants (which the committee has the role of supervising).
Although the applicant failed to persuade the court to find and uphold a legal right to life of the unborn, it appears that it will succeed in forcing the committee to confront a situation that, while arguably conveniently pragmatic, was unsatisfactory from a rule of law perspective. It can be expected that the decision will lead to the committee taking a more active role in the administration of the abortion statute. If this increased scrutiny leads to a reduction in authorizations, the eventual outcome - as the court noted - may be mounting political pressure to amend the statute to provide expressly for abortion on request, reflecting what appears to have been de facto practice for many years. In view of its inherently controversial nature, making abortion law reform a political issue is unlikely to be a welcome development from the perspective of many members of the elected legislature.
For further information on this topic please contact Chris Browne or Felicity Monteiro at Wilson Harle by telephone (+64 9 915 5700) or by fax (+64 9 915 5701) or by email (email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org).
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