Pressure grows on NSW MPs to reject anti-choice bill

Zoe's law has troubling implications for women’s reproductive control. Photo: Peter Boyle

A bill to recognise crime or harm against a foetus was debated a second time in NSW parliament on October 17. About 100 protesters rallied outside before filling the public gallery to witness the debate.

Liberal MP Chris Spence's bill, the Crimes Amendment (Zoe’s Law) Bill 2013 No. 2, also known as “Zoe's law”, aims to amend the NSW Crimes Act.

It would give rights and personhood to foetuses of more than 20 weeks (or weighing more than 400 grams), which has troubling implications for women’s reproductive control.

The bill is supported by NSW Attorney-General Greg Smith, former president of NSW Right to Life.

The protesters said the bill represented a dangerous attack on women's reproductive rights, which are already constrained in NSW. The law is opposed by Family Planning NSW, the NSW Bar Association, the Australian Medical Association, the Federation of Community Legal Centres, the Greens and women's health services.

MPs speaking against the bill in the debate said Michael Campbell, QC, had reviewed the Crimes Act after the tragic accident that prompted Spence to devise the bill. He had recommended against amending the Crimes Act.

Campbell's 2010 report said the existing criminal offences in the Crimes Act were appropriate, and warned against “unintended consequences” of amendments.

Labor MP Carmel Tebbutt, speaking against the bill, warned that laws can look clear as they are being drafted “but down the track, they can look a lot less clear”.

“Women's rights are already tightly circumscribed as it is, and we cannot afford to make them more so.”

Independent Sydney MP Alex Greenwich said the bill creates a grey area for abortion law, which is still not treated as a medical procedure in NSW.

He said the bill introduced the term “unborn child” into law. “A crime against a foetus is a crime against a woman,” he said, adding that grievous bodily harm resulting in the loss of a foetus does not go unpunished in NSW.

National MP for the Northern Tablelands, Adam John Marshall, also spoke out against the bill. He said no law should be “changed lightly”.

“The current law is sufficient to assess a penalty for those causing a death to a foetus,” he said.

Greens MLC Dr Mehreen Faruqi told the rally outside parliament: “Attempts to grant a foetus the status of an independent living person are more reminiscent of debates in the right wing of the Republican Party in the US and should have no place in Australia.

“It is unbelievable that in 2013, abortion is still a crime in NSW. Once ‘personhood’ status is enacted for a foetus, another layer of criminality will be added to what should essentially be a human right.”

Jenny Woudenberg from the Sydney Feminists Group spoke about how the US right wing has been pushing for, and winning, similar sorts of “foetal personhood” legislation to restrict or even ban safe abortions.

“Doctors may be prosecuted for doing their jobs, and women may die from a lack of access to proper care. We do not want to see this happen in NSW.”

MPs from the Liberal-National Coalition and Labor have a conscience vote on the bill, which is expected to go to vote on October 24. The Greens will vote against the bill. Labor and Coalition MPs are divided. In the second reading debate on October 17, four MPs spoke in favour, and four against.

Supporters of the bill claim to have the numbers in the lower house. They were not confident enough, however, to move to a vote when the debate ended after an hour.

Activists decided afterwards to organise a protest before the third reading scheduled for Thursday, October 24 at 9.30am. The protest will start at the corner of Martin Place and Elizabeth Street at 8.30am.

A "Defend abortion rights: Oppose the Crimes Amendment (Zoe's law) Act" protest is also being organised for November 3 in the city to help exert pressure on MPs not to vote for this bill, and to remove abortion from the NSW Crimes Act.