On the campaign trail two years ago, New Zealand’s future prime minister Jacinda Ardern promised voters that if her party took the majority, she would prioritize decriminalizing abortion. Now, the country is one step closer: In an unexpectedly overwhelming vote Thursday, lawmakers said they were in favor of advancing an abortion bill that would dramatically loosen restrictions surrounding the procedure.

Abortion is currently a crime in New Zealand, though women can go through with the procedure in exceptional cases and if two medical professionals deem it necessary to a patient’s mental or physical health.

Thursday’s vote was expected to be close, but it advanced easily to the next stage, with 94 voting in favor and 23 against. After further discussion, it will take two more rounds of voting for it to become law. It was one of the most significant steps New Zealand’s leaders have taken toward revising the country’s abortion policies since the late 1970s.

The bill

This week, Ardern’s government followed through on her campaign promise, unveiling a bill that would allow for pregnant women to seek abortions without a referral within the first 20 weeks of a pregnancy. After 20 weeks, women can seek to terminate a pregnancy with the approval of a doctor. It also includes a measure that would create safe spaces around some clinics providing abortion services to prevent antiabortion protesters from approaching those entering the building.

“The purpose is to modernize our law and ensure that abortion is treated as a health issue,” Justice Minister Andrew Little told reporters this week.

Speaking ahead of the vote, Ardern said that when she was elected to parliament more than a decade ago, she wondered when lawmakers would be ready to discuss abortion policy.

“How long a journey it would have felt for many inside and outside the House for this day,” she said.

“The time is right for us to put women’s dignity and rights at the center of this discussion.”

The controversy

Some advocates think the new bill doesn’t go far enough, and have called for women to have easier access to abortions even after 20 weeks. Antiabortion groups have railed against the proposed changes, with Voice for Life calling it a “wish fulfillment for a tiny minority of very vocal abortion ideologues.”

But Ardern, 39, said this week that she thinks the proposal is what “has the greatest chance of succeeding in parliament.”

Jennifer Curtin, director of the Public Policy Institute at the University of Auckland, said that by not taking an “overly progressive” approach on abortion, Ardern likely helped her case.

Vanisa Dhiru, president of the National Council of Women of New Zealand, said that over the years, pro-choice groups there have raised concerns that having to get permission from two doctors for the procedure can be “stressful when you’re in a location where there’s possibly only one general practitioner,” especially in rural areas.

But there were concerns among lawmakers, Curtin said, that reviving the abortion debate could potentially backfire and lead to the implementation of stricter policies surrounding abortion, even if public attitudes have shifted since the 1970s.

In a recent survey in New Zealand commissioned by NCWNZ, 66 percent of respondents said they believed women should have the right to choose whether to seek an abortion. Fourteen percent of respondents disagreed, while the rest said they were either neutral or did not know.

About 4.8 million people live in New Zealand, and according to official government statistics, a total of 13,282 abortions were carried out in New Zealand in 2018. More than half of those abortions occurred before a pregnancy reached 10 weeks.

Thursday’s vote will be carried out as a “conscience vote,” meaning legislators will vote freely, according to their personal beliefs and without consideration of their party line.

Ardern’s progressive record

Ardern broke norms early on in her role as prime minister when she became only the second world leader in modern times to give birth while in office. She also hasn’t shied away from publicizing her work-home balance, even bringing her infant daughter to the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

“She sort of gets about her business as a working woman with a child,” Curtin said. “It’s a low-key brand of feminism. She didn’t make a big deal out of what she wanted to see happen in terms of taking abortion out of the Crimes Act, but she was quite clear about it.”

In recent years, New Zealand has passed a raft of socially liberal laws — including those that have legalized same-sex marriage and implemented paid leave for domestic violence victims. But until now, leaders have not made much effort to adjust the country’s abortion policies.

In a televised debate before she became prime minister, Ardern said that expanding abortion rights “is about everyone being able to make their own decision.” Then-Prime Minister Bill English took the opposite stance, saying he “would be opposed to liberalizing the law.”

Once in office, Ardern approached the decriminalization of abortion in a similar way she has other agenda items, “saying this is a business-as-usual piece of work that needs to get done, and it’s going to happen,” Curtin said.

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