Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - A bid to legalize prostitution in New Zealand may be averted, as opposition has grown in a parliament that is more pro-family than it used to be.
Lawmakers exercising a conscience vote have now passed a second reading of the bill, but by a margin of just 62 votes to 56. By contrast, the first reading, which took place before an election last year, passed 87-21.
The period between the two readings has seen considerable lobbying by religious and secular groups opposed to the Prostitution Reform Bill, which would make it legal for those over 18 to solicit sex, while removing the offenses of pimping, brothel keeping and living off the earnings of a prostitute.
In last July's general election, a small Christian-based party, United Future, increased its representation in parliament from one to eight seats. The party fought hard against the bill, and all eight of its lawmakers voted against it.
Most other parties were split, with many lawmakers voting against colleagues and traditional allies.
With the final tally so close, opponents of the proposed law expressed optimism that it may yet be defeated. The bill has now gone into a committee stage to consider amendments before a third and final reading and vote.
Supporters of the legislation argue that it will help regulate an existing industry and protect prostitutes, for example, by forcing brothel owners to ensure "safe sex" is practiced.
But opponents such as lawmaker Dianne Yates, one of the few female members of the ruling Labor Party to oppose the bill, see it differently.
"I don't agree that prostitution and soliciting is a viable occupation for people in this country," she said.
"Coming from a feminist perspective, I think it is exploitation of women. This bill doesn't help the prostitutes - it makes nice, clean brothels for men to use."
Outside of parliament, a fringe group called "Catholic Action" sent emails to lawmakers warning that those who supported the move would be "on the road to hell for all eternity."
A spokeswoman for the Roman Catholic Church distanced it from the sentiment and the group behind it, however, saying it did not speak for New Zealand's Catholics. Some Christian lawmakers also took issue with the warning.
A Catholic Action representative said Monday that the group has the aim of defending the Catholic faith and fighting "evil legislation, be it existing or opposed."
He said the group opposed prostitution because it always involved at least one of a list of "mortal sins" - fornication, adultery, contraception, use of abortifacients, abortion or homosexual acts.
The spokesman, who did not want his name used, said Catholic Action had "hundreds of supporters who have signed petitions and financially supported our endeavors."
More traditional opposition has come from other religious and pro-family groups.
The Maxim Institute, a secular public policy organization that has lobbied hard against the move, said the key concern related to the "disastrous social consequences that will follow."
Pointing to the experience of Australia, Maxim said the decriminalization of prostitution clearly leads to the expansion of the sex trade. "Child prostitution will worsen and trafficking women for prostitution will increase."
Noting that 25 lawmakers had had second thoughts on the bill since the first reading, the institute said that as awareness grows, and "people come to realize the effects of the proposed law change," it expected more opposition, and the legislation's eventual defeat.
A group called the New Zealand Prostitutes' Collective, which is pushing for the law change, said it would increase its efforts and believed the bill would pass.
The collective says it campaigns for the rights of prostitutes to ply their trade in a legal, safe and healthy environment. Its staff are, or have been, involved in prostitution.
Meanwhile a small religious party without representation in parliament, the Christian Heritage Party, said the thousands of women who would be victims if the law passed were looking for just six members of parliament with a conscience to change their stand.
"MPs have one more opportunity at the third reading of the bill to stand for what is morally right," said party leader Graham Capill.
He called the bill an attack on women and the values undergirding a healthy society, saying it would lead to more violence, drug abuse, sexually-transmitted diseases and family destruction.
"The government should be more concerned to address the root causes that lead women into prostitution in the first place," Capill said.
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