MPs undecided on ‘Zoe’s law’

Protesters outside NSW parliament. Photo: Peter Boyle.

Controversial private member’s bill “Zoe’s law”, which aims to give legal rights to foetuses, was again set aside in the NSW Legislative Assembly on October 31. Only a few MPs turned up to the third second-reading debate; four spoke against and three spoke for it.

Those against were: Andrew McDonald (ALP Macquarie Fields); Leslie Williams (Nationals Port Macquarie); Jamie Parker (Greens Balmain) and John Williams (Nationals Murray Darling).

Andrew Fraser (Nationals Coffs Harbour), Mark Speakman (Liberal Cronulla) and Jonathan O’Dea (Liberal Davidson) either supported the bill or the bill with an amendment proposed by Speakman.

The bill, a “game changer”, as McDonald described it, would redefine when a foetus is recognised as a person and thus granted foetal rights: at 20 weeks or weighing more than 400 grams.

The law now recognises personhood as starting from birth. Recognising an “unborn child” as a living person would be a “very significant change” to the law in NSW, McDonald said.

The Crimes Act currently recognises grievous bodily harm to a pregnant woman if her foetus dies as a result of assault or violence committed against her. The maximum sentence is 25 years in jail.

The NSW Law Society said in its submission to MP Chris Spence, who moved the bill: “The criminal law currently provides properly for circumstances where criminal incidents involve the death of or harm to an unborn child and that there is no need for the legislation proposed …

“It would be very difficult to resist the application of this new concept to other areas of the law such as murder and manslaughter.”

McDonald said Right to Life was lobbying MPs to support the bill, which means it must believe “Zoe’s Law” would assist its anti-abortion campaign. Medical experts, including the Australia Medical Association (AMA) and the Australia and New Zealand Collage of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, are also opposed to the bill.

John Williams said his concerns related to women’s reproductive rights, which are “already over proscribed in NSW”. This is a reference to the fact that abortion is still technically a crime in NSW.

Parker said the bill wasn’t necessary as there was no loophole in the Crimes Act. “The current extended definition of ‘grievous bodily harm’ under the Crimes Act 1900 is adequate and does not require amendment. The Crimes Act was amended as recently as 2005 to address the destruction by a person of a foetus of a pregnant woman against their wishes.”

He reminded MPs, which he noted were overwhelmingly male, that they should heed the advice of the medical and legal professions.

Parker quoted from an AMA briefing that said creating a charge of grievous bodily harm for a child in utero “would have unintended consequences and flow on effects in other areas of medicine and, indeed, the law”.

The AMA also said it “objects to any legislative amendment or creation of a criminal offence which recognises an unborn child as a legal entity independent of its mother”.

“Our immediate concern is that such recognition would create unnecessary complications across several of members' specialities, such as genetics and obstetrics.”

Parker said he was also concerned that the bill would have “flow-on effects to other areas of medicine and of law”. He said that because barristers are already arguing over the significance of the bill’s content and implications means that, if passed, it will be open to legal interpretation.

Parker ended his speech reminding MPs that the fight for women’s rights is “not just the responsibility of women”. He also said that the Greens will “continue to work towards repealing all laws that restrict the right of women to choose abortion and the laws that restrict access to services”.

The bill will be discussed again in the House of Assembly on November 14.