A young couple facing imprisonment in Queensland for illegally obtaining an abortion were acquitted this week (15.10.10) in a court case which has put Australia’s abortion laws under the spotlight.
The couple, Tegan Leach, 21, and Sergie Brennan, 22, were arrested in when police found empty packets of RU486 and misoprostol, drugs used in the termination of pregnancy, while searching their home on an unrelated matter.
The couple were prosecuted under a section of the criminal code entitled ‘Offences against morality’ which dates from 1899. Leach was charged with procuring her own miscarriage and faced up to 7 years in jail while Brennan faced three years for supplying the drugs.
Although an estimated 27,000 abortions take place in Australia every year, many people are unaware that the procedure remains a crime in Queensland and New South Wales, and that women, their partners and doctors face prosecution unless they can prove abortion is necessary to protect their lives or their physical or mental health.
When Tegan Leach became pregnant in 2008, Brennan asked his sister to send the drugs from the Ukraine, so that she would be able to have an abortion at home. Thousands of Australian women have terminated pregnancies using these drugs since import restrictions were eased in 2006. Many have done so legally and under doctors’ supervision.
Although the abortion occurred without complication, publicity surrounding their subsequent arrest and trial led to their home being firebombed, and they were forced to move to a secret address with security cameras and guard dogs for protection.
In court last week, Leach was reduced to tears as her decision to privately abort faced national scrutiny. The trial was described as a ‘public humiliation’ by abortion law reform activist Leslie Cannold, who said “I’m so galled on her behalf. How dare the nation put her through this?”
However, with the jury returning not guilty verdicts in under an hour, the trial may ultimately lead to positive changes in the law. The case sparked public outrage, with protests being held across Australia in support of the couple and calling for the outdated legislation to be repealed. Campaign group Pro-Choice Victoria cites polls showing around 80% support a woman’s right to choose.
Although some legal experts believe that the case sets a precedent effectively decriminalising RU486 in Queensland, abortion law across Australia varies considerably, and in Queensland and New South Wales the threat of prosecution remains until comprehensive legal reform occurs.