Australian Woman Prosecuted for Medical Abortion
In the state of Queensland, a young woman may face seven years in prison for allegedly taking the abortifacient RU486. Michelle Dicinoski, PhD, looks into the pro-choice advocates rallying around her case.
By rights, 20-year-old Tegan Leach should be living a regular, anonymous life. Instead, because she procured her own medical (non-surgical) abortion in Cairns, Australia, Leach has been charged with a crime that carries a seven-year jail term, and details of the charge and the events surrounding it have been widely published in print and online. Leach’s 22-year-old partner, Sergei Brennan, faces the possibility of three years in prison for assisting her.
Cairns is located in the state of Queensland, where it is a crime for a woman to procure a miscarriage by unlawfully “administer[ing] to herself any poison or other noxious thing,” or through “force of any kind,” or, in fact, through “any other means whatever.” Abortion is permitted in Queensland only if the woman’s physical or mental health would be at risk if she proceeded with the pregnancy. The breadth of interpretation that this provision allows has meant women can access abortion with relative ease in Queensland—relative ease, that is, for women who live near the metropolitan area or a regional center, and who can afford to pay. But the Leach case proves that the law provides inadequate protection for women who seek abortions and the doctors who treat them.
When Leach discovered she was pregnant, she and Brennan consulted a doctor to arrange a termination. Surgical abortion was the only option that the doctor suggested, even though medical abortion is as legal—or illegal—as surgical abortion in Queensland.
Leach and Brennan sought advice from their mothers, and also from Brennan’s sister, who lives in the Ukraine. Leach felt that she would prefer a medical abortion. Brennan’s sister, who herself had experienced a medical abortion, allegedly brought RU486 with her into the country a short while later, around Christmas 2008. Unaware that she was committing a crime, Leach took the drugs and ended the pregnancy.
Some time later, police searched Leach and Brennan’s premises on an unrelated matter, discovered the empty packaging that the pills had come in, and charged Leach and Brennan.
Caroline de Costa, professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Cairns’s James Cook University, has taken a particular interest in the Leach case. In her book Never, Ever, Again, Dr. de Costa points out that the laws under which Tegan Leach was charged were taken directly from the English “Offences Against the Person” act of 1861. These laws are 150 years old—and, de Costa notes, “Leach is almost certainly the first Queensland woman to be charged with procuring an abortion for herself.”
When Leach and Brennan were first charged, Queensland doctors ceased providing medical abortions entirely, for fear that they, too, would be charged. Women seeking medical abortions then had to travel interstate to access them. The law was subsequently amended to address these concerns but, Dr. de Costa says, still lacks clarity.
Leach’s trial is significant, says de Costa, because “this young woman allegedly made the kind of rational decision for herself that thousands of Australian women make every day. She acted upon it and yes, what she allegedly did was illegal, but she was not aware that she could access medical abortion legally, or at least relatively so, in Cairns; the law in Queensland then (in 2008) was extremely unclear and remains so despite the minor changes made by the government in September 2009.”
Emma Tovell from the Pro-Choice Action Collective states: “The committal hearing in September last year heard that the prosecution does not have to prove that the woman was pregnant, or even that the pills she took were real, but only that she had ‘abortive intent’ and that [Brennan] assisted her in that intent. If she is found guilty, then all kinds of women’s services, and women themselves, could be found to be breaking the law in all kinds of ways.”
If women are to have access to safe abortion, without risking a criminal charge, the law needs to be changed—not just in Queensland, but across Australia. Dr. de Costa says, “Abortion is a health issue and all Australian women should have equal access to information, counseling (if they want it), and abortion services, and this should be a Commonwealth responsibility.”
The law must be changed to ensure that other women who make the same choice as Tegan Leach need never suffer through what Leach is experiencing right now: a very public battle over a very private matter. You can sign the Radical Women petition, or visit the Pro-Choice Action Collective site or the Facebook group to pass on messages of support for Leach and Brennan. Rallies will occur on October 9, ahead of the trial on October 12.
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