Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - By a single vote, New Zealand lawmakers Wednesday passed a bill decriminalizing prostitution, following months of sustained lobbying by religious and public policy groups who worry about the likely consequences of the proposed changes.
Lawmakers were given a conscience vote on the Prostitution Reform Bill, which makes 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.
Prostitutes also will be covered by employment and health and safety laws, and brothel operators will have to be licensed.
Supporters said the changes would offer prostitutes much-needed protection from exploitation, while opponents argued the changes would lead to more drug abuse, child prostitution, trafficking of women, and a general expansion of a trade that is by its very nature exploitative.
"We must judge this not on whether it is good for sex workers, but whether it is good for New Zealand society," Nick Smith of the official opposition National Party told the legislature Wednesday.
"Sex should not be for sale," he said. "Prostitution is nothing more than paid rape."
Three years of discussion culminated in recent weeks with an intensifying of campaigning on both sides of the issue. Some lawmakers described the lobbying as the heaviest they had ever faced.
At the end, the mood in parliament shifted to such a degree that the final vote late Wednesday was 60-59 in favor of the bill.
Mixed reaction from women's groups
Major political parties were split, and women's groups came down on both sides of the issue.
The National Council of Women of New Zealand came out in support of the bill.
"No one disagrees that society needs to address those factors that pressure people into prostitution," said the group's president, Beryl Anderson. "But, in the interim, should those currently in the industry, or who seek to leave that industry continue to have lesser human rights than the rest of us?"
On the other hand, the New Zealand Federation of Graduate Women said the bill would "diminish, rather than enhance, the health and safety of New Zealand women and girls."
Some opponents of the bill agreed that the laws covering prostitution needed to be amended. Currently a prostitute who solicits sex is breaking the law, but a client who takes up the offer is not.
But they argued that the proposals now voted in will make matters worse for the very people they are supposed to protect.
Law enforcement representatives also warned that the proposed changes would be difficult to police, and could allow organized criminal syndicates to run brothels.
The bill was backed by such groups as the Green Party, the Family Planning Association and an organization representing women involved in the sex trade, the Prostitutes Collective.
Opposition was spearheaded by the Maxim Institute, a conservative public policy organization, and by churches.
Church leaders last week wrote an open letter to all 120 lawmakers, arguing that the bill would fail in its stated aim of offering greater protection to prostitutes.
"The normalizing of prostitution sends a message that the commercial selling of one's body is an acceptable function in society and will draw many other young and vulnerable people into the business," said the signatories, who included Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist and Salvation Army leaders.
The church intervention and Maxim's lobbying drew an angry response from the bill's sponsor, Tim Barnett of the ruling center-left Labor Party.
He accused the church leaders of arrogance and said they were ill-informed.
Barnett also claimed Maxim's campaign was being funded by Christian\lang5129 fundamentalist groups in the United States. Maxim denied the charge, saying its campaign was funded by concerned New Zealanders.
In fact, one of the bill's most vociferous opponents was one of Barnett's colleagues, Labor lawmaker Diane Yates, who arranged for an Australian academic opposed to decriminalizing prostitution to visit parliament to outline her concerns.
Prof. Sheila Jeffreys of Melbourne University said that when an Australian state made similar law changes in the 1990s, they resulted in a mushrooming of illegal brothels, some of them linked to organized crime, and an expansion of the sex trade.\lang5129
As campaigning proceeded, a number of wavering lawmakers announced their intention to reverse their earlier support for the bill.
At each reading of the bill, the numbers of lawmakers supporting it slowly dwindled.
The first reading last year passed by 87 votes to 21. By last February, support dropped to 62-56, where it has more-or-less held since then until Wednesday's final reading and vote.
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