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Issue #1620      November 27, 2013


Reproductive rights targeted

Thursday November 22 was a dark day for women’s reproductive rights. In NSW the Lower House voted 63 to 26 in favour of an amendment to the NSW Crimes Act to make it a criminal offence for a person to cause the destruction or harm of a foetus 20 weeks onward or 400 grams. If passed the bill would for the first time in Australia confer legal “personhood” status on a foetus. The bill states that “a foetus is to be regarded as a living person despite any rule of law to the contrary.” It raises serious implications for women’s reproductive rights.

The amendment to the Crimes Act is emotively named Zoe’s Law after the name given to a stillborn baby by her mother Brodie Donegan in 2009. In the latter weeks of her pregnancy Brodie was hit by a car. The driver was under the influence of drugs, Brodie suffered serious injuries and lost her baby.

The judge found the driver guilty of driving in a dangerous manner causing grievous bodily harm to Brodie (including the foetus) and sentenced him to two years and three months jail with a non-parole period of nine months. Brodie was not satisfied with the sentence and raised it with the government. She supports Zoe’s Law which would recognise grievous bodily harm against an unborn child as a person. Under the Crimes Act, the judge had the power to take into consideration the harm done to the foetus and impose a penalty of up to 25 years. Zoe’s law does not change that possibility.

The Women’s Electoral Lobby Australia, Family Planning NSW, Women’s Health NSW, Domestic Violence NSW, Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, the National Foundation for Australian Women, Reproductive Choice Australia and Children by Choice oppose the bill. They have lobbied Parliamentarians who were given a conscience vote. It is no accident that the division in Parliament over Zoe’s law is along the lines of those who support women’s reproductive rights – pro-choice – and the anti-abortionists who go under the misleading name of “pro-life”.

The NSW Bar Association and Australian Medical Association have also voiced concerns. The Bar Association says it would be almost impossible to quarantine the human rights of the foetus into one small corner of the Crimes Act under the heading of grievous bodily harm.

Its president Phillip Boulten explained to the ABC Radio National program Background Briefing (10-11-2013) that the bill could lead to other criminal charges such as manslaughter and murder. “What’s the difference really between a special law saying that if you cause grievous bodily harm to a foetus that’s one thing, why would it not be the logical next step is to criminalise the deliberate killing of a foetus or the deliberate and wilful killing of a foetus? That could be manslaughter or murder,” Boulten said.

Abortion is still a criminal offence in NSW punishable by up to 10 years jail, unless it is necessary to preserve the woman involved from serious danger to her life or physical or mental health. It is no accident that right-wing Christian Democrat Fred Nile is lurking in the background. He has never let up in his campaigning against abortion and other women’s reproductive rights. When Labor amended the Crimes Act ten years ago to make grievous bodily harm an offence against the foetus, Nile unsuccessfully sought to have the words “foetus of a pregnant woman” replaced by “child in utero”.

Nile last year put an amendment before the Upper House, Zoe’s Law Bill 2012, which attempted to establish a separate offence for conduct causing serious harm to or destruction of “a child in utero”. In May this year he withdrew his bill, and in August Chris Spence, Brodie’s local member, put forward a new version of Zoe’s Law in the form of a private member’s bill, which looks less obvious in intent.

The target is clearly not stiffer penalties for violent acts (the bill does not increase the penalty), but abortion. Zoe’s bill paves the way for the outlawing of abortion as manslaughter or murder with life imprisonment for doctors and women attempting to exercise their reproductive rights. There is still time to lobby Upper House members in NSW, and Guardian readers are urged to do so. There will be a conscience vote and the numbers look far closer.

Next article – Conference for the Cuban 5

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