Justice Minister Andrew Little introduced the bill to reclassify abortion.
CNN  — 

New Zealand’s justice minister, Andrew Little, introduced a bill on Monday aimed at legalizing abortion in the country.

The new bill would change the status of abortion from a criminal issue to a health issue, according to a statement from Little. Such a move would dramatically increase access to abortions, which are currently only legal in New Zealand in cases of fetal abnormality, incest or if the mother’s health is at risk.

“Safe abortion should be treated and regulated as a health issue; a woman has the right to choose what happens to her body,” Little said in the statement.

Under the terms of the bill, which will have its first reading in parliament on Thursday, women less than 20 weeks pregnant will be able to obtain an abortion without getting prior approval from a doctor, by self-referring directly to an abortion provider.

Women who are more than 20 weeks pregnant would still need to consult a doctor, who would have to deem an abortion appropriate for the woman’s physical and mental health, Reuters reported.

Anti-abortion protesters gathered on May 28 in Wellington to protest changes to the law.

“Abortion is the only medical procedure that is still a crime in New Zealand. It’s time for this to change,” Little said. “This bill will modernize the laws on abortion, by removing it from the Crimes Act and bringing the law into line with many other developed countries.”

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern proposed changes to abortion laws during her 2017 election campaign, but wrangling over the bill has delayed progress.

Anti-abortion campaign group Voice for Life criticized the bill, calling it “truly shocking” and accusing Ardern’s government of “wish fulfillment for a tiny minority of very vocal abortion ideologues.”

Pro-choice group ALRANZ said the proposed legislation represents an advance but overall is a “mixed bag,” Reuters reports.

“It’s not as good as it could have been, but it’s so much better than the status quo. We have to give the government props for that,” said ALRANZ president Terry Bellamak, who questioned the 20-week time limit, according to Reuters.

By way of comparison, most abortions in the UK are carried out before 24 weeks of pregnancy, according to the National Health Service, although terminations can be carried out later than that for health reasons.

Speaking at a press conference, Ardern defended the bill and the 20-week limit. The prime minister said three versions of the bill had been considered before a decision was taken.

“I think this option has the greatest chance of succeeding in parliament,” she said.

Ardern’s Labour coalition government will present the bill for the first time on Thursday. Her party has 46 members of parliament and sits in coalition with nine MPs from the populist New Zealand First party. The opposition National Party has the largest number of MPs, with 55.

Abortion law is a hot topic in many countries, with some lawmakers attempting to reduce access to terminations.

In the United States, abortion is legal in every state under the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, but most state governments have set their own limits in one way or another. And in 2019, a series of strict local anti-abortion bills were passed with the intention to reshape women’s access to the procedure.

On the other hand, Ireland voted overwhelmingly to repeal its national abortion ban in a May 2018 referendum.