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Zoe’s law: a woman’s choice

A group of NSW parliamentarians are fighting a bill they believe will erode a woman’s right to choose, writes Lucia Osborne-Crowley

Earlier this year, Reverend Fred Nile   MLC proposed the Crimes Amendment (Zoe’s Law) Bill 2012 in the Legislative Council. Nile’s proposed amendment to the Crimes Act 1900 changes the legal status of a baby in utero, according the foetus full personhood under the law.

It was a response to a criminal case brought against the driver of a car who hit Brodie Donegan, causing her injury and leading to the death of her unborn child. The driver was charged with grievous bodily harm, but Donegan, Fred Nile and other supporters of the reform believed the penalty should have been heavier, which would be afforded by changing the legal status of the foetus. However, the law failed to pass in the Legislative Council, and worries about the implications of legally separating an unborn child from its mother in terms of personhood were temporarily assuaged.

A new version of the law is before the NSW Parliament. While it may be true that the introduction of Zoe’s Law would allow harsher penalties to be given to perpetrators such as the negligent driver in the Donegan case, the justice it precludes may outweigh that which it faciliates. Changing the legal status of a foetus is a very dangerous change to a legal structure whose foundations of protection of a woman’s right to control her own body are already shaky at best.

This is the view held by Dr Mehreen Faruqi, a Greens member who opposed the Bill in its parliamentary debate on Thursday. Faruqi told Honi that she, with unequivocal support from the party, opposed the Bill because the comprehensive nature of the current Crimes Act renders it entirely unnecessary if not for the purpose of repealing women’s reproductive rights and prepare the ground for an anti-abortion Australia.

“As it stands, the status of abortion in NSW is on shaky ground. This law, if passed, has the potential of adding another layer of criminality to what should be essentially be a human right.” Faruqi told Honi immediately prior to the parliamentary debate on Zoe’s Law. “This is inappropriate and gravely concerning as it not only impacts on women’s reproductive health but sets us on a slippery slope to undermining women’s rights to choose.”

Faruqi believes that the passing of the law would signal that in 2013, Australia is heading in precisely the wrong direction. “In NSW, we need to be working towards removing abortion from the Crimes Act and hence removing any legal doubt from the fact that a woman controls her body, not anyone else.” In no uncertain terms, Faruqi told Honi: “this bill is unnecessary and undermines women’s rights. These are clearly ideologically driven tactics for restricting women’s access to sexual and reproductive health services and have to be opposed and defeated.”

The Greens are joined in their opposition to the Bill by the NSW Bar Association, the Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and Family Planning Australia, along with many women’s rights activist groups who are campaigning to create widespread trepidation about the impacts of the bill.

In Parliament, Faruqi’s strong opposition to the bill will be seconded by MP Robyn Parker and Health Minister Jill Skinner. Ann Brassil, Chief Executive of Family Planning NSW, and Karen Willis, the CEO of the Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, have also expressed strong opposition to the bill.

Nationals MPs such as Troy Grant and Chris Spence are in full support of the bill. Fred Nile has also voiced his support for the bill, and will campaign in support of the bill should it reach the Upper House. It was decided that the bill would go to a conscience vote following its debate in Parliament on Thursday, which again signals that what is at stake in this debate is far more than a minor amendment to the Crimes Act.

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