Monday, September 07, 2009

Queensland's archaic abortion laws

Abortion law is one of the many reasons why state-based law in Australia is idiotic and why the states should be either abolished or have their many powers removed to the Commonwealth. Available legally elsewhere, abortion is technically illegal in Queensland but common in practice. To obtain an abortion here, a woman has to find a doctor who is prepared to say the abortion is needed to preserve her from serious physical or mental harm. But an abortion trial in Cairns in North Queensland has thrown the ambiguous system into crisis. Public hospitals in Brisbane, Rockhampton and Mackay began refusing to perform abortion procedures because of concerns relating to the case in which a young couple was charged over a medical abortion forcing women to spend large amounts of money to travel to Sydney and other interstate capitals to procure a legal abortion.

In Queensland abortion remains a criminal offence under provisions of the Queensland Act that date back to English Victorian times. Women can be criminally prosecuted for accessing abortion under Sections 224, 225 and 226 of the act. However Section 282 offers a defence for patient benefit or the preservation of the mother’s life. In 1985 the conservative Bjelke-Petersen government actively sought out a case to shut down the Greenslopes Fertility Control Clinic. But the court ruled for the Clinic saying prosecutions were too difficult to achieve under Section 224. The judge also said the status of Queensland’s abortion laws was uncertain. Since that time, the law on abortion has not been tested as basically the prosecuting authorities have “turned a blind eye”.

That changed in April this year when a Cairns woman was charged with organising her own abortion. 19 year old Tegan Leach faces a possible seven years in jail under section 225 after allegedly bringing in an illegal overseas drug to carry out the procedure. Her 21 year old partner Sergie Brennan has also been charged under Section 226 with the supply of the drugs and with procuring an abortion and could face three years. The couple's defence lawyer argued that because no chemical analysis was done there was no evidence to prove that the drugs Leach admitted to taking were in fact poisonous or noxious. On Thursday evidence concluded but Magistrate Sandra Pearson adjourned the hearing, saying she would deliver her verdict at a date to be set.

On the same day, the State Government rushed a bill into parliament to attempt to clarify the existing law which refers only to surgical procedures. The bill made minor retrospective changes to Section 282 of the Criminal Code which protects doctors who perform drug-induced abortions from prosecution. It was passed with bi-partisan support after an opposition briefing by Attorney-General Cameron Dick. There was no conscience vote as it did not touch on the moral aspects of abortion. As pro-life LNP Gympie MP David Gibson said in parliament, the bill does not decriminalise abortion. Its objective was to ensure it was legal for a person to “provide medical or surgical treatment for a patient’s benefit or provide surgical or medical treatment affecting an unborn child for the preservation of a mother’s life or for the benefit of the unborn child.”

Gladstone independent MP Liz Cunningham was the only dissenter to the bill. She brought a petition to parliament signed by 1,265 people opposing decriminalisation. But many thousands more ignore the law. According to Family Planning Queensland, there were 14,386 abortions carried out in the state in 2006 out of a national total of 71,773, roughly 20 percent of the total. The 15 minute procedure used is the surgical curette which uses a tube to suck the lining and the contents out of the uterus with a small plastic tube. The curette is a very safe procedure with complications occurring in just 0.4 percent of all cases.

Although decriminalisation of abortion has been part of Labor Party policy platform for 30 years, the State Government shows no sign of implementing it. The excuse offered by Premier Anna Bligh is that it would require a conscience vote which she says would not only lose but might produce even tougher laws. Andrew Bartlett disputes this argument and says it is not “sufficient reason not to bring on a debate, which would at least clarify the issue.”

According to Queensland’s Right to Life (recently renamed as “Cherish Life”) the central abortion issue is “the value we accord the individual human life from conception to birth.” But most people don’t believe the value is constant along that line from conception to birth. As Jesuit priest and author on ethical matters, Frank Brennan, says there is a huge difference between “disposing of a beaker full of embryos” and the dismembering and killing [of] a near viable foetus who is only days and inches from a life protected by law and respected by society.” It is time Queensland law caught up with this reality - parliament should repeal sections 224, 225 and 226 of the criminal code.

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