Pressure is mounting on the Liberal Party to drop a new law that would for the first time define a 20-week-old foetus as a “person”.
The NSW Bar Association has written to Chris Spence, the Liberal MP proposing the law, to say it opposes the law on the grounds that it is “arbitrary” and may lead to the interests of the foetus prevailing over a woman's ability to have a late-term abortion.
Fairfax understands the updated version of the bill known as “Zoe's Law” – which was first proposed by the Reverend Fred Nile after Sydney woman Brodie Donegan lost her unborn child Zoe at eight months when she was struck by a car – was due to be voted on in Parliament on Thursday. It is unclear whether the vote will go ahead.
A coalition of women's rights groups has repeatedly requested that Premier Barry O'Farrell arrange for them to brief the Liberal party room about the law.
The NSW Bar Association wrote to Mr Spence arguing that the principle that some foetuses are people would call into question whether a medical procedure the mother wants can be permitted if it harms another person.
“There is legitimate concern about the broader implications of this bill,” the letter says. “When can a medical procedure designed in the interests of the mother be permitted to harm, let alone result in the destruction of, another 'person'?
“Equally, can a mother consent to the destruction of the foetus where what is occurring involves the destruction of another 'person'?”
Women's Electoral Lobby Australia chairwoman Melanie Fernandez said the lobby had joined a coalition of women's groups that were deeply concerned by the proposed laws.
She said so far the group had been unable to arrange a briefing with Liberal MPs, despite giving similar briefings to the Nationals, Labor, the Greens and independents.
“It would be really concerning if this bill were to go to debate without consultation with experts in the community,” she said.
A spokeswoman for feminist group the F Collective, Georgia Potter Butler, said there were adequate provisions to punish offenders who harmed a foetus.
She said while death laws allowed for legal recognition of a stillborn foetus after 20 weeks, there could be unintended consequences of the new law.
“There's quite a difference between giving a mother the opportunity to grieve and bestowing legal rights on a foetus in utero,” she said.
The women's groups, which include Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, are also concerned that wording in the part of the bill that makes an exception for pregnancy terminations does not cover medical terminations such as those using RU486, and may not adequately cover doctors performing terminations on people with mental illness or intellectual impairment.
Mr Spence has previously told Fairfax the law was never intended to infringe on abortion, which is illegal in NSW but is protected under case law as being acceptable if a woman is facing “serious danger to her life or physical or mental health”.
“It is certainly not the intent of this to take away anything that's done by the medical fraternity or to take away a woman's right to choose,” he said. “It's about protecting a woman's right to choose to go to full term in her pregnancy."
He said creating a new category of foetus that could be legally considered to have been harmed under grievous bodily harm laws would have required “pages and pages and pages” of amendment if it did not define the foetus as a person.
“If you start making pages of changes people get very nervous,” he said. He said he was happy to consider any amendments that ensured medical terminations were covered by the protection in the bill.
Mr O'Farrell has been contacted for comment.