NSW foetal personhood law still looming

March 7, 2014
'We need to keep the pressure up and make sure it is defeated.' Photo: Peter Boyle.

Pro-choice activists are concerned that a bill that aims to give foetuses legal rights for the first time was not debated in the NSW Legislative Council on March 6. They wanted it to be tabled and voted on because they were confident it would be defeated.

The bill known as Zoe’s Law was listed for debate but Liberal MP Marie Ficarra did not table it. Later, it was rumoured that the bill’s supporters could only count on 10 votes. Last November, the bill passed through the NSW Legislative Assembly, 63 to 26.

Christine Smith from the Women’s Abortion Action Campaign told Green Left Weekly the result is mixed: “The good news is that opponents of the bill have more time to lobby against it with MLCs who are undecided. The bad news is that it wasn’t voted on. If it had been it would have been consigned to the bin, and we could all get on with working towards repealing the abortion laws from the Crimes Act NSW Legislative Council.”

Greens MLC Mehreen Faruqi told GLW: "Communities across NSW are realising the dangerous consequences of passing this bill. I’ve attended information forums and rallies, and received many letters and phone calls from people opposing foetal personhood.

“The timing of the bill will be determined by the supporters of the bill so we need to keep the pressure up and make sure it is defeated. Numbers in the upper house are close and changing.”

It’s believed that Brodie Donegan, who helped draft the bill with Liberal MP Chris Spence, is planning to lobby MLCs before Ficarra tables it.

Opponents of the bill include the Australian Medical Association, NSW Bar Association, Law Society, Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Family Planning NSW, Women’s Health NSW and Women’s Legal Service NSW. They say that the bill is arbitrary, unnecessary and could lead to further restrictions on women’s reproductive rights.

The bill’s supporters, including Liberals, Nationals and the Labor Party, argue that it would bring the law into line with the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1995, which obliges stillborns to be registered.

The NSW Bar Association has noted that the 1995 law was conceived as an important part of grieving process but said: “The purpose of this was never to allow such a radical change to criminal law, where abortion still remains an offence.”

In a letter to Liberal MP Chris Spence, the bill’s sponsor in lower house, the Bar Association said: “If an ‘unborn child’ ... is to be treated as a ‘person’ under some NSW criminal laws, it would be difficult to resist its adoption in respect to other NSW criminal law.”

In other words, if a foetus is to recognised as a legal entity and be given “rights”, these can easily come into conflict with those of the pregnant woman. This is a major concern for supporters of reproductive rights in NSW where abortion is still, legally, a crime.

Conservative Christian Democrat MLC Fred Nile told Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia on February 6: “We urgently need Zoe’s Bill for the sake of mothers and their unborn babies.”

Smith said: “We must work together to convince the wavering MLCs to support the rights of NSW women and their doctors.” She said lobbying, rallies and information sharing were all needed.

Smith said: “Nile, the original architect of the bill, must be delighted he’s lived long enough to find the winds of right-wing extremism have repopularised this nifty political trick.

“He has been proposing foetal personhood since at least 1982, but previous parliaments have been wise enough to reject his past attempts.

The bill’s opponents have repeatedly acknowledged the Donegan family’s tragedy. But they say the bill will do nothing to ease such a loss. Further, it could lead to the wholesale removal of women’s reproductive rights – already tenuous in NSW.

[Click here for more information and resources about Zoe's Law.]

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