Emily Rayers explains the implications of Zoe’s Law for women’s reproductive rights

On Wednesday October 16, Dr Linda Atkins, an obstetrician and gynaecologist who specialises in ultrasound and prenatal diagnosis, is set to speak on campus about the impending “Zoe’s Law” – a bill that is currently under debate in NSW Parliament.  This bill is the first of its kind, aiming to give legal recognition of foetuses after 20 weeks.

Atkins will be speaking out against the Foetal Personhood Law. But Atkins is not the only one – the Campbell Review made recommendations against changes to pre-existing laws and the Bar Association wrote a letter expressing their condemnation. Numerous groups have also spoken out against this Bill, including NSW Women’s Electoral Lobby, Family Planning NSW, Community Legal Services, National Rape and Domestic Violence services. There has been a lack of consultation about the bill with experts and the community (in particular the women’s sector, community, legal and health organisations). It is particularly concerning that MPs have not been given the full opportunity to hear from these sectors before making a conscience vote.

The foetal personhood law named “Zoe’s Law” was originally proposed by Fred Nile against the wishes of Brodie Donegan, the woman who the bill was inspired by. Donegan was hit by a car which resulted in the loss of her pregnancy. The death of Donegan’s unborn daughter, Zoe, was categorised as an act of ‘Grievous Bodily Harm’ and the person responsible for the car accident was let off with a light sentence. What Ms Donegan went through was a tragedy, and I am terribly saddened by her story. However, countless organisations in the medical, legal and social services are speaking out against the revised bill which Ms Donegan helped to shape. There are several unintended consequences of the bill being debated currently, which will have serious impacts on the lives of women in NSW.

– The bill establishes personhood for a foetus

This would be the first legislation introduced in NSW that draws a distinction in personhood between a woman and the foetus. This has been used to set a precedent in other jurisdictions, such as in the United States, to prosecute women who have acted contrary to the interest of the foetus. It creates legal rights for a foetus separate from the mother and can allow these rights to come in conflict with those of the mother. This is sufficient reason to believe this bill is an infringement on women’s bodily autonomy and agency, and even a step towards ending women’s right to choose abortion.

– The bill has the potential to undermine women’s reproductive rights

As abortion is in the Crimes Act in NSW it is in a precarious position. Giving personhood status to a foetus may affect the lawfulness and accessibility of abortion in NSW, particularly for procedures carried out later in a pregnancy.

– The amendment is unnecessary

The current legal frameworks are sufficient. The amendment to the legislation, implemented in 2005, allows a charge of Grievous Bodily Harm against a mother to be brought against an offender who causes the harm or destruction of a foetus. This can carry a sentence of up to 25 years. The legislation has subsequently been reviewed and found to be sufficient (by the Campbell Review). This is not to say that the sentencing brought against the person responsible for Zoe’s death are adequate, however the offender was not sentenced to the full penalty available under current laws.

If you would like to hear from a medical professional on this issue, or have questions, come along to Dr Linda Atkin’s talk on Wednesday 16th October 5.30pm-6.30pm (venue TBA – check the Facebook group ‘USyd Women’s Collective’ or event page, check the blog at usydsrcwomens.blogspot.com.au or email usydwomenscollective@gmail.com to find out). Debate on this bill continues the next morning, Thursday October 17.

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