The horrible ordeal faced by the Cairns couple, Tegan Leach and her partner Sergie Brennan, charged “for procuring an abortion” is set to continue after they were committed to trial on a date yet to be fixed.
Information revealed at the committal hearing showed even more clearly why the archaic laws need to be repealed.
On the basis of her own experience, Sergie’s sister who lives in the Ukraine advised Tegan that a medical abortion was safer, and less intrusive than a surgical operation. Not knowing that RU486 was available in Australia, Sergie and Tegan, imported the drugs from the Ukraine.
The drugs were declared to Australian Customs, thinking they would be stopped if there was any problem. Tegan did not know that abortion is illegal in Queensland.
On February 1, the police raided the couple’s house (on an unrelated matter) and found empty drug packages. Believing they had done nothing wrong, the couple openly admitted using the drugs.
Nearly two months later, the police returned and charged the couple.
It was the first time in over 50 years that a woman has been charged for having an abortion. The large time gap between the raid and charges being laid suggests it was a deliberate move by the Queensland police, and the Director of Public Prosecutions, and almost certainly done with the knowledge of the state Labor government.
Tegan and Sergie are now living at a secret, secure location. Following the publication of their address in the Cairns Post, their house was fire-bombed and their car vandalized.
Premier Anna Bligh, who claims to be pro-choice, has publicly supported the charges and attempted to fool the public by suggesting that the charges were related to the smuggling of illicit drugs.
No smuggling charge
But these charges are not about drug smuggling. They are not about the safety of the drug, or the manner in which it was taken.
Tegan has been charged under section 224 of the criminal code, which states that, “Any woman who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, whether she is or is not with child, unlawfully administers to herself any poison or other noxious thing, or uses any force of any kind, or uses any other means whatever…is guilty of a crime and is liable to imprisonment for 7 years”.
The couple’s lawyers argued that the police had never tested the drugs, so it could not be proven that the drugs caused the miscarriage.
But the prosecution only needs to prove intent, which they said Tegan provided when she said she had had an abortion. There was also no proof that Tegan had ever been pregnant, but the state responded that the law applies “whether she is or is not with child”.
Although it would have been better if Queensland doctors defied the laws, in the lead up to the committal hearing, doctors at the Royal Brisbane Hospital ceased performing medical terminations, saying it was unclear whether or not doctors could face charges for such services.
Several other hospitals followed suit, leaving women referred to hospitals with no option but to travel to NSW.
Although Premier Bligh had previously stated that there would be no changes to the laws, an amendment to section 282 was rushed through Parliament to include reference to medical procedures. Previously the section provided protection only for doctors performing a “surgical operation” for the preservation of the mother’s life. Only one right-wing MP voted against.
However legal advice that doctors may still be liable has meant that medical abortions remain unavailable in Queensland hospitals.
Bligh refuses to act
Bligh has tried to hide behind the excuse that any change to abortion laws would require Labor MPs having a conscience vote, and even suggests that this would allow an anti-abortion majority of MPs to make the laws even worse.
But there was no “conscience vote” this time. If the law can be changed once without a conscience vote, it can be changed again. Abortion law reform is clear Labor Party policy.
Polls show 79 per cent support for abortion rights. Bligh’s claim that she “doesn’t have the numbers,” has been challenged by former state Labor MP Bonny Barry and others.
Hundreds of protesters rallied in Brisbane days before the hearing. Pressure is building on the government.
Queensland Labor Senator Claire Moore has publicly criticised Bligh and called for full decriminalisation, while Bonny Barry revealed that draft legislation repealing the draconian abortion laws was prepared in 2003.
Pro-choice activists are organising another demonstration in late November to press Bligh to act.
By Susan Shaw