A PRIVATE Member’s Bill being debated in the NSW lower house of parliament and to be sponsored by Fred Nile in the upper house presents serious risks for women, and the doctors and services they rely on.
For the first time in Australia, a parliament is considering giving legal personhood to a foetus.
This bill proposes that after 20 weeks of gestation, or at a weight of 400grams if gestational age cannot be determined, anyone who injures a pregnant woman and causes a miscarriage or stillbirth could be charged with grievous bodily harm against the foetus and not the pregnant woman. For the first time, a foetus is considered a separate legal entity to the pregnant woman.
The ramifications of this bill for women in NSW are of great concern to Women’s Health NSW.
We represent 21 women’s health centres, including the Hunter Women’s Centre in Mayfield.
Our concerns are also shared by Family Planning NSW, (which has its clinic in the Newcastle CBD), Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, Women’s Legal Services NSW and Community Legal Centres NSW.
We believe this law is unnecessary. The 2010 Campbell review into laws surrounding criminal incidents involving the death of an unborn child found that our current laws are sufficient for dealing with the (mercifully) few cases where these circumstances arise.
Supporters of this bill say that it is tightly drafted, that it has nothing to do with abortion, and that it will not interfere with the work of doctors. They say that if a woman consents to treatment, then she and her doctor will not be at risk of criminal charges.
The state’s leading medical associations, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG), disagree that the bill is drafted to do this and have publicly said so. They say this bill will make the work of doctors and obstetricians and gynaecologists more difficult, and potentially expose doctors to criminal charges. After all, if a foetus is a person, how can you consent to them being harmed, the same way no one can consent on your behalf to you being harmed.
The NSW Bar Association also has concerns about this bill, calling it unnecessary and highlighting the potential conflict of rights that will arise if a foetus is treated as a person in any context. The bill, as it stands, is drafted in a way that will almost inevitably interfere with the work of doctors.
It takes a definition placed in the NSW Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act intended to allow parents to register a stillbirth and transports it to our criminal laws.
In the United States, many states have laws that make the “death of a foetus” a discrete crime and a range of laws aimed at restricting or preventing access to reproductive healthcare services, such as birth control, abortion and fertility treatments.
Reproductive health and medicine has been the focus of Women’s Health NSW since its inception.
The particular health needs of women are our bread and butter, and this law presents a risk for our services and the women who rely on us.
Legal and medical experts have called this bill unnecessary and arbitrary. Parliamentarians should be guided by them, as well as by organisations like Women’s Health NSW, when voting on this bill.
We know we have the support of some MPs in the Hunter Region to have this bill defeated, but we are concerned that when debate on the bill resumes on October 17, the risks to women’s reproductive rights and well-being will not be considered by every MP in the NSW Parliament.
Member for Maitland Robyn Parker has already demonstrated her leadership on this issue and was one of the first MPs in NSW to stand against the bill. Our plea to Hunter MPs is that they follow Robyn Parker’s lead and support the rights of women in their electorates.
Given our work with women who have been sexually assaulted or have experienced domestic violence, we would be the first to support a bill that adds greater protection to vulnerable women.
However this bill does not do that. Instead, it weakens an already tenuous situation and will have grave and lasting consequences for women across NSW.
Denele Crozier is the executive director of Women’s Health NSW.