The New Zealand Law Society has recommended that the select committee reviewing the Abortion Legislation Bill consider changes.
These would ensure that provisions relating to ’safe areas‘ are workable and protections regarding conscientious objection rights are consistent with both the Human Rights Act and the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.
The Law Society has presented its submission on the bill to Parliament’s Abortion Legislation Committee. Its Law Reform Committee convenor, Tim Stephens, says the Law Society recognises that the bill is a significant piece of social legislation.
“The Law Society’s submission addresses only the clarity and workability of the legislation and its consistency with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act. The focus of the Law Society’s submission is the establishment of ‘safe areas‘ around abortion facilities and rights of conscientious objection,” he says.
The bill will create a regime empowering the Minister of Health to designate “safe areas” intended to protect people accessing abortion facilities, within which activities such as intimidation or interference would be prohibited.
The Law Society has questioned whether some form of public notification should be a requirement of the safe area scheme, so that protesters and the public can readily determine where intimidating or obstructive protest behaviour is not lawful.
It says the select committee should also consider whether the ’safe area’ prohibition as currently drafted provides adequate protection to people accessing abortion facilities.
“It’s not clear whether the current prohibition on particular types of conduct in the safe area would adequately capture undesirable behaviour that the Bill is designed to guard against, such as a person outside the safe area using a long lens camera to record activities inside the safe area in order to cause emotional distress to women accessing abortion facilities,” Mr Stephens says.
The Law Society has also made recommendations relating to the bill’s conscientious objection provisions.
“For instance, it is unclear whether the bill intends to grant the right of conscientious objection only to health practitioners, or whether it applies to any person associated with the provision of the regulated abortion services. This question needs careful consideration,” spokesperson Greg Robins has told the committee.
How the conscientious objection is to be communicated, and when, also needs careful consideration to avoid being unnecessarily confrontational.
“If the intent is to provide for notification of conscientious objections at the earliest opportunity, the committee may want to consider whether practitioners should proactively state any objection in a publicly accessible way, rather than waiting for an in-person consultation,” Mr Robins says.
He says the employment protections in the bill for people with a conscientious objection are not as strong as those available under the Human Rights Act.
“As currently drafted, the bill would allow an employer to treat a person with a conscientious objection unfavourably, without needing to prove that the objection would in fact disrupt their business, and without any requirement to consider whether other staff could carry out that part of the person’s duties. The Law Society cannot see any reasonable justification for this,” Mr Robins says.