Cairns Abortion Case to Begin October 12th

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Cairns Abortion Case to Begin October 12th

Robin Marty

In a ramp up to a historic abortion trial, Queensland reproductive rights activists use protests and public awareness to show the shortcomings in a century-old law.

It will be a week full of protests and rallies, as reproductive rights advocates in Queensland, Australia focus on the trial of a woman and her partner who are being prosecuted for obtaining an abortion.  The couple, who according to the police reports allegedly obtained RU486 out of the country in order to induce a miscarriage at home, are facing a combined ten years of jail time. 

The law against obtaining and inducing an abortion has never been used to prosecute a woman seeking an abortion before, according to doctor and advocate Caroline de Costa.  Dr. de Costa was one of the first doctors in the country to proscribe RU486 once it was legalized in 2006, and then stopped providing it in 2009 due to the implementation of the 1899 law banning attempts to “procure a miscarriage.” reported:

“We have had to look at what the implications are for us and more importantly, for our patients,” Dr de Costa, who imports the drug from New Zealand, said.

“We can not have a situation where our clients are put in a similar position and face prosecution.

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“We have always known that medical abortion is not clearly defined in Queensland law. We have always been very clear and up front about that.”

The trial and the activities surrounding it offer a highly public chance to narrow down and solidly define these laws, and reproductive groups are stepping up efforts to use them to do so.

Pro Choice Cairns, a local reproductive rights group, has been helping to arrange protests and public awareness over the upcoming trial.  In a recent interview with Green Left Weekly, Carole Forde spoke about the organizations efforts to publicize the trial.

How has the Cairns community responded to this case?

With overwhelming disbelief. I’m sure when most Queenslanders first heard of the charges, they felt as if they had regressed in time.

Many members of the community, including those associated with Pro Choice Cairns, have spent innumerable hours raising awareness and campaigning for abortion to be removed from the criminal code.

Researchers suggest that about 85% of [Queenslanders] support women’s right to choose. [It] is a health issue, rather than a consideration for the judiciary.

[Pro-choice campaigners] have experienced extraordinary support from the majority of Cairns residents, with only an insignificant number of detractors. Consistently, women share their personal experiences, express their abhorrence at the “persecution” of this couple and thank us for our efforts.

We have also been encouraged by the number of men taking a positive stance.

Why have these laws remained on the books in Queensland while other states and territories have recently reformed or repealed them?

It would be wonderful if there was some lucid and verifiable reason for the recalcitrance of “the smart state”. Over the past two decades, there have been numerous attempts to repeal or reform the law relating to abortions. What is retained in the criminal code is anachronistic: it is a 19th century law for 21st century women.

Interestingly, the Labor Party, which currently forms the government, has a platform policy that proposes the decriminalisation of abortion. The [former] Beattie [Labor] government in 1999 established a taskforce to look at how aspects of the criminal code impacted on the lives and human rights of women in the state.

The taskforce report included decriminalisation in its list of recommendations, a recommendation absolutely ignored by both the then attorney-general and minister for women.

There appears to be an unbelievable reluctance by the majority of MPs to even express their personal opinion on the need for criminal code reform, a fact verified by the poor MP response to our appeal for information. Normally, personal opinion would not be so significant, but it is evident that any vote would be decided by a “conscience vote”.

This is party-sanctioned approval for MPs to give primacy to their personal stance — based usually on religious persuasion — over the opinion and rights of their own constituents.

What is particularly astonishing is how out-of-step most MPs appear to be with those they supposedly represent, and how little concern they show about it.

But it isn’t simply pro-choice groups that think the law is outdated and draconian.  The Australian Council for Civil Liberties (ACCL), a civil libertarian action group, is opposed to the action as well.

Via the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

Australian Council for Civil Liberties (ACCL) president Terry O’Gorman says abortion should be decriminalised in Queensland up to 20 weeks of pregnancy.

“Recent changes to the abortion law in Victoria, which were moderate and very restricted, should be copied by the State Labor Government here,” he said.

“Unfortunately the State Labor Government won’t grasp that nettle.

“We’re urging them to rethink their position and to follow their Victorian counterparts.”

Local groups will be holding a series of rallies on October 9th, three days before the start of the trial, in an attempt to pressure the government to drop the charges against the couple prior to proceedings getting underway.  As activist and organizer Kathy Newnam explains to IndyMedia Australia,

“The Bligh government continues to claim that the case is related to the way the abortion allegedly took place. But the facts of the case demonstrate this to be untrue. The couple have been charged under the anti-abortion laws, not drug related laws. The drugs allegedly used are not banned in Australia.

“Worst of all, the Bligh government is lining up with the most conservative anti-abortion forces in their scaremongering about the abortion drug. The drugs allegedly used are not unsafe. In fact they are statistically safer than many other drugs that can be ordered on line.

“What is at stake in this case is a basic principle – a woman has the right to control her own body.

“That is why pro-choice supporters in Brisbane and around the country will rally on October 9 – to demand the dropping of the abortion charges and the repeal of the anti-abortion laws”.

Abortion rights have become a large focus not just in Queensland, but New Zealand, too, where reproductive rights activists are pushing Parliment to loosen current laws restricting abortion access.

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