MPs delay decision of foetal ‘personhood’ bill

October 24, 2013
Protesters gather outside NSW parliament house on October 24. Photo: Peter Boyle.

NSW MPs supporting a Liberal MP's private members bill to recognise crime or harm against a foetus — dubbed “Zoe’s law” — have tried to avoid any connection between it and their reactionary anti-choice backers.

But on October 24, Katrina Hodginson, National MP for Burrinjuck, publicly thanked Margaret Tighe, national president of Right to Life Australia, for her encouragement. After declaring her support for the bill, Hodginson said she believed that there was a need for more laws “from the victim’s perspective”.

In this case, the “victim” would be a foetus of more than 20 weeks or weighing more than 400 grams. For the first time in a parliament in Australia, Chris Spence’s Zoe’s Law bill aims to give foetuses legal rights — or “personhood” status.

MPs have been given a conscience vote; it has been debated three times and is due to be debated again on October 31.

Other MPs speaking in favour of the bill on October 24 were: Barbara Perry, ALP for Auburn; Chris Holstein, Liberal for Gosford; Chris Hartcher, Liberal for Terrigal; and Richard Amery, ALP for Mt Druitt.

Perry gave a confused argument, saying she had “wrestled” with her conscience. But she concluded that the current penalties for grievous bodily harm under the Crimes Act “were not sufficient” and said “criminal law had to give weight to victims”.

Pru Goward, Liberal for Goulburn; Sonia Horney, ALP for Walsend and Bruce Notley-Smith, Liberal for Coogee spoke against Spence’s bill.

Goward said she was reluctant to support the bill because changes to the law could bring unintended consequences. “The courts will seek consistency of definition,” she said, referring to the bill’s notion that a foetus be considered a “child” in NSW law.

The Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) has also warned on July 1 that: “This will set an unacceptable precedent for the way foetuses are considered in law through granting them rights.”

Horney cited WEL, NSW Family Planning, the Hunter Region Women’s Working Group and other feminist organisations which oppose the bill. She reiterated that under the current provisions of the Crimes Act, a penalty of 25 years’ imprisonment already exists for those committing grievous bodily harm. “We don’t know the ramifications of the bill for common law: it could become a springboard for anti-choice proponents,” Horney said.

Hartcher took aim at the NSW Bar Association which has opposed the bill, saying it “had another agenda”. He also said, without evidence, that it did not represent the views of its members and spoke of four or five QCs who didn’t agree with its executive.

Phillip Boulten, from the NSW Bar Association, told Spence in a letter on September 6 that his bill “will significantly change New South Wales law”.

Boulten reiterated the concerns of many in the legal profession and beyond, saying: “A foetus that satisfies the definition of an ‘unborn child’ will be treated as a ‘person’. ‘Grievous bodily harm’ to that ‘unborn child’ (defined to include ‘destruction’ of the ‘unborn child’) may be prosecuted directly under the nominated provisions.”

Boulten said, as the 2010 Campbell Review had concluded, the NSW Bar Association also believed that “current New South Wales criminal law in this area is satisfactory”.

Outside NSW Parliament before the debate, Greens MLC Dr Mehreen Faruqi told a protest: “This bill is unnecessary; it is dangerous and will erode the rights of women.

“This bill needs to be recognised for what it is: an attack on a woman’s right to choose. Foetal personhood laws are not pro-choice, no matter what the bill’s supporters say or do."

Faruqi also said she was pleased with the emergence of a grassroots movement around reproductive rights. "Supporters of women’s rights across generations are coming together to not only defeat this bill, but to remove abortion from the Crimes Act entirely.”

Earlier, NSW police tried to prevent most of the pro-choice activists who had demonstrated from entering the parliament's public gallery to witness the debate over the proposed legislation. They eventually did get in to witness the debate, and joined an organising meeting for the next rally.

The bill will be debated again on October 31.

Another rally for women’s rights to abortion has been called for Sunday November 3, 1pm at Sydney Town Hall Square.

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