Caught in abortion crossfire
The Australian Newspaper
SPARE a thought for Tegan Leach and her boyfriend, Sergie Brennan.
Late last year they were faced with a decision 100,000-odd Australian women make annually: Leach, 19, had become pregnant and, after talking things through with her partner, is alleged by police to have resolved not to have the baby.
The steps the couple are alleged to have taken are now the subject of intensely watched court proceedings in Cairns, north Queensland. Police have charged Leach with the offence, under the Queensland Criminal Code, of procuring her own miscarriage, the first such prosecution for more than a half century.
But that's not all that gives this case its political needle; Leach is alleged to have terminated her pregnancy with contraband RU486, the abortion pill that was allowed into the country just three years ago, and only after federal MPs and senators exercised conscience votes to overturn a ban on its importation.
If convicted, she faces up to seven years' jail.
Brennan, 21, has been charged with one count of attempting to procure an abortion, an offence carrying up to 14 years' imprisonment, and a further count of supplying drugs to procure an abortion, punishable by three years' jail. Neither has entered pleas.
As detailed in the paper's news section today, the couple's problems don't end there.
Their home was firebombed with a Molotov cocktail and Brennan's car was smashed up. The young man believes the attacks were no coincidence, though Cherish Life Queensland, the state's main pro-life group, has strongly denied any association with violence.
The couple has moved to a new address in Cairns secured by closed-circuit cameras and guard dogs.
"It was pretty bad," Brennan tells Inquirer in his first interview. "Everyone in Australia knew who we were and where we lived."
Forces on both sides of the bitter abortion divide are mobilising across the country. In cyberspace, a dedicated page has been set up on social networking site Facebook to support the couple.
Children by Choice in Queensland is using the case to step up its campaign for abortion law reform; specifically, for the 110-year-old provisions of the criminal law against abortion to be repealed and for abortion to be regulated instead through the state's Health Act. Essentially, this is what Victoria did last year when it decriminalised abortions up to week 24 of gestation. Anti-abortion rights activists are organising in Queensland to block the renewed push for law reform in that state.
Toowoomba general practitioner David van Gend, who campaigned strongly to keep RU486 out of the country, has re-emerged to back the police in prosecuting the prosecution of the Cairns couple, saying bluntly: "Where consenting adults conceive a baby, both they and their doctors have a duty of care to that child that cannot be abrogated and any attempt to take its life must be restrained by law. Does our position mean couples should be prosecuted for self-procurement of abortion, such as with RU486, where there is no medical necessity? Yes. We either enforce, with an appropriate deterrent, some agreed limits on abortion, or sink to the depraved depths of the current Victorian regime."
Cherish Life Queensland president Teresa Martin says the group has had observers in court to track the case as it grinds through the judicial process. Leach and Brennan are due toappear at a committal hearing next month in Cairns, where a magistrate will decide whether there is sufficient evidence to put them on trial.
Martin insists that her people have no truck with the aggressive tactics adopted by some anti-abortion groups; they don't confront women outside abortion clinics, for example, though they sometimes mount "silent protests" there.
Anyone who used violence would be drummed out of Cherish Life, Martin says. "In no way, shape or form would we accept that."
The case has already exposed deep-seated problems with the abortion laws in Queensland. Cairns obstetrician and professor of medicine Caroline de Costa, who was at the forefront of the campaign in 2005-06 to bring RU486 into the country and established the first clinical service using the drug, has stopped prescribing it because of what she says is the uncertainty in the law.
There were two factors in this decision, de Costa says. Strictly speaking, elective abortions are banned by statute law in Queensland. Section 282 of the criminal code, however, does allow an abortion to be performed "for the preservation of the mother's life".
In 1986, Brisbane judge Fred McGuire interpreted this exemption broadly to create one of the planks in Australian case law that gives women access to elective abortion, even when it is banned by statute.
De Costa's primary concern is that the legal situation is unstable, and the prosecution of Leach and Brennan reinforced that.
"Cairns has become something of a centre of abortion radicalism, if you like, compared to the rest of Queensland," she says. "And so when this case presented we felt it just wasn't a coincidence."
The second issue she has with the existing law is the wording of section 282, which refers to "a surgical operation" to save the mother's life. How does the common law defence apply to her work with RU486, she wonders, when it is medical in its application, not surgical?
"It's not about the ethics or morality or what anyone thinks about abortion," she says. "It's about making sure that the law is clear and consistent with the rest of Australia."
All of which is something of a headache for Premier Anna Bligh, just what she doesn't need right now when the unions are kicking up over the state government's $15 billion assets sell-off and the Labor mates affair continues to unspool.
Bligh's Labor predecessors Wayne Goss and Peter Beattie each reformed Queensland's antiquated laws on prostitution but shied away from abortion. Bligh, to date, has continued to follow the path of least resistance, saying she would support a private member's bill if it happened to lob in parliament, but the legislation wouldn't come from her, and if it were presented she doubted whether it would pass.
Bligh, a former women's activist, said she feared access to abortion could be made more restrictive if the legislation were amended "in its manifestation through the debate".
That would be a terrible outcome for women, the Premier said.
Leach, awaiting her day in court in trepidation with her boyfriend, could probably tell Bligh a thing or two about that.