Victory in sight for campaign against foetal personhood law

Issue 
Demonstrators protest against ‘Zoe’s Law’ at Legislative Council Parliament House in Sydney on November 13. Photo: Peter B

Supporters of women's reproductive rights gathered outside NSW Parliament on November 13.

The push to amend the NSW Crimes Act to grant a foetus personhood rights is likely to collapse after a controversial Private Member’s Bill failed to be debated in the Legislative Council.

The bill, known as “Zoe’s law”, has one more chance to be debated or it will lapse permanently on November 20.

Zoe’s law was first introduced in 2010. It was passed by the Legislative Assembly last year.

Reproductive rights activists have been keeping a close eye on when the bill would be debated in the Legislative Council. For some time, it looked unlikely that it would be debated this year, but in September, Premier Mike Baird suddenly announced his desire to have the bill debated.

If the amendment is passed, the Crimes Act would recognise a foetus aged over 20 weeks as a “living person”. This would make it possible to charge a person who destroys a foetus with the crime of grievous bodily harm. It would severely restrict access to abortion. It would be the first time in Australia that a foetus is given separate legal status from the woman carrying it.

Former Liberal MPs who have backed the bill — including its original Legislative Assembly sponsor Christopher Spence, Legislative Council sponsor Maria Ficarra and MLA Chris Hartcher —have been caught out for corruption since the bill was introduced.

The NSW Bar Association opposes the bill because of its arbitrary nature and the danger it may lead to further changes to criminal law.

The Bar Association said: “Once legislation is enacted which provides that ‘an unborn child’, as defined in the bill, ‘is taken to be a living person’ for the purpose of some offences, it will be very difficult to resist comparable changes to other offences, including murder and manslaughter.”

It said the passing of the bill would have obvious implications for access to late-term abortion, and for other circumstances where abortion is required and a person consents to the procedure to protect the health of the mother.

The Bar Association argues that existing NSW criminal law is sufficient to take account of tragic cases such as Brodie Donegan’s, who was hit by a car while eight-months pregnant. This tragedy sparked Zoe’s law, named after Donegan’s unborn child.

The Bar Association said the law already states that destruction of the foetus of a pregnant woman is taken to be grievous bodily harm of the woman, regardless of the stage of pregnancy, but not in relation to anything done in the course of a medical procedure, or by or with the consent of the pregnant woman.

Spence and Christian Democrats Party leader Fred Nile MLC have called for the NSW government to adopt Zoe's law as a government bill and pass it, rather than keeping it as a private member’s bill and relying on a conscience vote.

Journalist Ruby Hamad, writing at Daily Life on November 11, said: “Foetal personhood, at any stage of pregnancy, diminishes the personhood of women. The rights and lives of women should not be dependent on a flimsy ‘exemption’ in a crime law.

“Defeating Zoe's Law is about far more than reproductive freedom. It is folly to think that Australian women will somehow escape the fate that has met women overseas. If our parliamentarians value women as full human beings, they must not pass foetal personhood into law.”

If the bill lapses, this will mean that attention can be turned to a campaign to repeal all abortion laws in New South Wales. Greens MLC Mehreen Faruqi announced in June that she would table such a bill to remove abortion from the Crimes Act in the Legislative Council.

[Susan Price is the Socialist Alliance candidate for Summer Hill in the forthcoming NSW state election. A long-time feminist activist, Price was active in the Women’s Abortion Campaign in Brisbane in the early 1990s, which called for the repeal of Queensland’s abortion laws after the Wayne Goss Labor government refused to implement Labor policy.]

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