by Melody Teh
A group of protesters with signs proclaiming “Keep your politics out of my pussy” and “Defend abortion rights” stood in front of NSW Parliament on Thursday in protest of the controversial Zoe’s Law bill currently being debated.
Speaking at the protest, Greens MP Mehreen Faruqi said the bill was “completely unnecessary, completely inappropriate and actually really dangerous, not only for women’s rights but for their doctors and lawyers”.
The group hoped its protest would show MPs their deep concern with the bill, which is being put to a conscience vote.
The bill is named in honour of Brodie Donegan’s stillborn child, who died at 32 weeks after Ms Donegan was hit by a car on Christmas Day in 2009. The driver was charged with grievous bodily harm to Ms Donegan but not the stillborn child, Zoe, as the law does not recognise a foetus as a person.
Liberal MP Chris Spence, who introduced the bill after consultation with Ms Donegan, said the purpose of Zoe’s Law was to hold a person criminally liable for the death of a foetus and “does not, nor does it intend to, have any bearing on a woman’s right to choose”.
The proposed legislation would amend the Crimes Act to consider a foetus at either 20 weeks or 400 grams as a “person” for the first time, creating a new crime of grievous bodily harm to a foetus.
This would not apply during medical procedures or “anything done by or with the consent of the pregnant woman”.
However, a coalition of women’s health and legal groups, including Women’s Electoral Lobby, Women’s Legal Service, NSW Women’s Health, Rape and Domestic Services, have spoken out against the bill saying it could have unintended repercussions for women’s rights.
Denele Crozier, Executive Officer of NSW Women’s Health, says their concern lay with the bill’s attempt to separate a foetus from the woman who is carrying the foetus.
“It has been shown in America that when you have the rights of the foetus and the rights of a woman, and they conflict, the foetus often takes the mother to court,” she says.
Ms Crozier also believes the bill is unnecessary. “The Crimes Act was already amended in 2005 to take into account the death of a foetus, which is considered grievous bodily harm to a mother,” she says.
Karen Willis, Executive Officer of Rape and Domestic Violence Services, believes that once the legal system defines a foetus as a “person”, there will be dangerous and far-reaching consequences for women’s abortion rights.
“Once those laws are in place, they can always be changed. So a foetus at 20 weeks is a person, but down the track this can become 16 weeks,” she says. “This is exactly the process that was used in the United States in making abortion illegal. The very first step was giving living person status to a foetus separate from the mother.”
As well as fears for women’s access to abortion under this proposed bill, Ms Willis is concerned that women could also be prosecuted for unintentionally damaging their foetuses.
“A mum might consume too much drugs and alcohol and if there is subsequent damage to the foetus past that 20 weeks, there is potential to take action against her,” she says.
She is also concerned with the implications of women in domestic violent relationships.
“We know the impacts of trauma on people who experience sexual assault are quite extreme. Sometimes that trauma makes doing everyday ordinary things really difficult, let alone realising that they haven’t had a period in while. They might get to a position of late term pregnancy and all of a sudden no service providers will touch them because they are afraid of legal action,” she says.
Ultimately, Ms Willis says she cannot support a bill that “separates a foetus from the woman carrying it”.
“The bottom line is that it’s a woman’s right to make choices about her body. This concept of the foetus as separate from the mother is, well, it simply is not. It’s part of her developed form,” she says.
The bill has divided NSW Parliament in the three debates since its introduction on 29th August and is due to be debated again, and most likely voted on 7th November.