A private member’s bill giving a foetus the legal status of personhoood due to go before the NSW parliament this month, brings us one step closer towards the criminalisation of abortion.
The proposed legislation known as Zoe’s Law, creates the criminal offence of grievous bodily harm to a foetus from 20 weeks gestation, which requires a conceptual change to the law.
Under the current law, a foetus of any gestation is not a living person. A woman must give birth to a live baby for it to be considered a living person. The private member’s bill, introduced in the NSW Parliament by Liberal Member Chris Spence, seeks to extend this definition of “a living person” to include a 20 week old foetus in the womb.
The bill, originally introduced by leader of the Christian Democrats Rev. Fred Nile, is in response to the tragic death in utero of Brodie Donegan’s unborn child Zoe. Ms Donegan was eight months pregnant when she was hit by a drug-affected driver in December 2009.
In May 2010, Michael Campbell QC was asked by the NSW Government to review the Crimes Act and assess whether the current provisions were an adequate response to criminal incidents involving the death of an unborn child. With an offence of this nature carrying a maximum prison sentence of 25 years, the Campbell Review concluded that the existing criminal law was adequate and that amendment before the parliament was unnecessary and inappropriate.
Despite this recommendation by the Campbell Review, Chris Spence and Rev. Fred Nile are determined to proceed, rushing the bill though the NSW Parliament, without it being reviewed in committee or being subject to an adequate consultation period.
The National Foundation of Australian Women (NFAW) is one group who are deeply concerned about the lack of consultation.
I spoke to Marie Coleman from the NFAW this morning and she said: “There is a long established legal precedent that talks about a live birth is when personhood begins. This is what the medical profession has worked with for a long time and what the legal profession has worked with for a long time. And making any change to that without going through the most careful examination, seems to us to be rather foolish.”
The parliamentary briefing paper for the Crimes Amendment (Zoe’s Law) Bill 2013 (No 2) “raises a number of interesting questions about the inter-relationship of this bill with other parts of the Crimes Act and other pieces of legislation. This is one of the reasons why we think this type of significant change ought to be considered in a parliamentary committee.”
Indeed. This bill raises many questions.
Women’s Legal Services NSW are concerned the new law could be used to impose restrictions on the behaviour of pregnant women. Which leads me to wonder about the fate of women who use drugs or abuse alcohol, or who smoke during pregnancy. Could these women come under scrutiny for engaging in behaviours which are by all accounts, potentially harmful to the growing foetus?
Other concerns raised by women’s groups include what impact the new law would have on women using the RU486 abortion drug.
Earlier this month Chris Spence told the Sydney Morning Herald he will meet with women’s groups and he is prepared to make amendments, but he won’t be backing down.
“I hear their argument and respect their battles, but this is not an attempt to take them backwards. This is about a pregnancy ended by a criminal act,” Mr Spence said. “The actions of pregnant women are clearly exempted by the bill.”
But Women’s groups dispute this, saying the exemptions for medical procedures in the draft legislation, aren’t strong enough to protect reproductive rights.
“There are elements in the bill, as it is drafted, which purport to say this won’t prevent a woman who makes a decision to have a termination from having one,” Marie Coleman told Australian Women Online. “But it nevertheless opens up the law considerably, to whether or not other changes can flow from it.”
When the Sydney Morning Herald asked women MPs from the NSW Parliament how they would be voting when the bill comes before parliament, most of them said they wouldn’t be voting for it because of concerns about unintended consequences for women’s reproductive rights.
The bill was to be debated in NSW parliament tomorrow (12th September) but we understand that around noon today, Chris Spence agreed to defer the debate for another week.