NEW ZEALAND – Between reproductive rights and sex selection in New Zealand’s abortion reforms

Global Public Health 2023;18(1)  DOI: 10.1080/17441692.2023.2224420 (Open access)

by Rachel Simon-Kumar, Vartika Sharma, Nikki Singh


In 2020, the New Zealand (NZ) Parliament voted to decriminalise abortion. Although NZ’s abortion law formally opposes sex selective abortions, there is considerable complexity in the gender politics of ‘choice’ and ‘agency’ in multi-ethnic societies, and interpretations of reproductive rights for ethnic minority women and for the girl child, respectively. This paper explores these complexities through the perspectives of reproductive and maternity care practitioners who are situated at the interface of legal systems, health service provision, and delivery of culturally sensitive care. Thirteen practitioners were interviewed as part of this study.

The analysis highlights strains in framings of ‘reproductive choice’ (underpinned by western liberal notions of rights) and ‘gender equality’ (abortion rights that acknowledge the complexity of cultural son-preference) for ethnic minority women. These tensions are played out in three aspects of the post-reform landscape: (a) everyday practice and accountability; (b) consumerism and choice; (c) custodianship and gender rights.

The findings point to the limitations in operationalising choices for ethnic minority women in health systems wherein a trust deficit prevails, and cultural dynamics render complex responses to abortion. They also highlight reconfigurations of client-expert relationships that may have implications for practitioners’ abilities to advocate for ethnic minority women’s rights against cultural influences.

From the Introduction

In March 2020, following an impassioned debate, the New Zealand (henceforth, NZ) Parliament voted in favour of the Abortion Legislation Act (2020, henceforth ALA20) making abortion a public health, rather than criminal, matter. A key argument made during the parliamentary debates centred around sex selection. Members both in favour of, and opposed to, abortion law change used sex selection as a point of argument – the former to dissociate rights to abortion from an endorsement of sex selection and the latter to equate one with the other. In its final summation, the law states that ‘[t]his Parliament opposes the performance of abortions being sought solely because of a preference for the foetus to be of a particular sex’ (ALA20, Section 21 (1)).

The reference to sex selection in the abortion debate directly draws attention to New Zealand’s ethnic minority and migrant communities from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, who comprise around 17% of the total population. Internationally, sex-selective abortion, particularly favouring boys, has been seen as inherent to Asian, particularly Indian, and Chinese societies, impacting sex ratio at birth profiles in these countries. In recent years, similar sex ratio patterns have been noted among Asian migrant populations residing in western countries like the UK, Canada, and the US, signalling the continuing practice of sex-selective abortions post-migration.

Abortion-related practices among Asians in NZ present an ambivalent picture. NZ-Asians have low numbers of abortion overall but their abortion rates (abortions per pregnancies) in comparison to all ethnicities are the highest. Although abortion is legal in the origin countries of the two main migrant groups – India and China – research shows NZ-Asians to be generally less supportive of the recent abortion reforms compared to other ethnicities. Perhaps reflecting this position, at least two Asian women parliamentarians voted against the 2020 reform, with at least one noting the potential abuse for sex selection as a reason, despite the data on sex-selective abortion to date belying this assertion. Recent work notes no male-favouring sex ratios among children born in NZ in ethnic communities noting that, compared to other western countries, NZ presents an ‘anomaly’. Despite this evidence, there is an entrenched popular association of sex selection with cultural diversity, as reflected in comments by parliamentarians during the debate ‘[t]hat (sex selection) is not part of New Zealand culture, and we never want it to be’….

PHOTO: Aotearoa Multicultural Women Association, Facebook