26th July 2019, Volume 132 Number 1499

Angela Ballantyne, Colin Gavaghan, Jeanne Snelling

Abortion in New Zealand Statistics indicate that around a fifth of New Zealand pregnancies are terminated1 and one in four women have had an abortion in their reproductive lives—more than…

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Our paper critiques the current legal situation and standards of practice in New Zealand regarding doctors’ rights to refuse to refer patients for abortions and/or refuse to arrange for the patient to be seen by a colleague who will process the referral. Allowing providers to object to direct referrals, when one of their core professional obligations is to navigate patients through the health system, is one thing. But when providers object to making indirect referrals, and thereby fail to ensure the safe transfer of the patient to the care of a colleague, this amounts to abandoning the patient. We consider this ethical issue in the context of proposed abortion law reform in New Zealand.


After five decades of restrictive laws, New Zealand is on the cusp of law reform that may result in abortion being treated as a health, rather than a criminal, matter. Given this possible liberalisation, a pressing issue is the way in which ‘conscientious objection’ (CO) will be accommodated within the new legislative landscape. In this context, CO constitutes a health provider refusing, on the grounds of personal conscience, to provide care that, although legal and potentially clinically appropriate, conflicts with their personal moral views. Currently, New Zealand law permits significant concessions for conscientious objectors. This paper argues that in the light of current reform, the justification for permitting CO should be revisited. It claims that even if it is conceded that some form of CO should be respected, a pragmatic compromise must be adopted so that both provider’s and women’s rights are sufficiently protected. We argue that the current legal situation in New Zealand is unbalanced, favouring the rights of providers at the expense of women’s timely access to abortion care. At a minimum, providers with a CO should be required to ensure an indirect referral to another provider who is willing to refer the woman to abortion services.

Author Information

Angela Ballantyne, Associate Professor of Bioethics, University of Otago, Wellington; 
Colin Gavaghan, NZLF Chair in Law and Emerging Technologies, Faculty of Law, University of Otago;
Jeanne Snelling, Lecturer, University of Otago, Faculty of Law, Bioethics Centre.


This paper is informed by research and arguments presented in the submission prepared by Angela Ballantyne and Liesle Theron to the New Zealand Law Commission public consultation on abortion reform. 


Angela Ballantyne, 23 Mein St, Newtown, Wellington 6242.

Correspondence Email


Competing Interests



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