A young Australian couple at the centre of a landmark abortion case in far north Queensland were found not guilty on Thursday. The trial has kicked off a furious row.
While Medicare reports about 27,000 abortions in Australia each year, it remains a crime in New South Wales and Queensland to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.
AdvertisementAll other states and territories have legislated, in varying degrees, to give women this choice. But In NSW and Queensland, women - and their partners and doctors - risk jail terms unless they can prove an abortion is necessary to protect their lives or their physical or mental health.
Twenty-one-year-old Tegan Leach was the first woman in Queensland to go on trial for procuring her own abortion. She faced a threat of a seven-year term, but to her relief the jury held her not guilty. Her 22-year-old partner Sergie Brennan had been charged with unlawfully supplying drugs to procure an abortion. Of course he too is free now. Their trial was based on a 1899 law.
Cheers and applause greeted Tegan Leach and Sergie Brennan as they left the Cairns District Court. But the media is awash with discussions on the archaic laws in the two states.
In a video of a police interview played in Cairns District Court, Sergie Brennan, said: ''We wanted to give our kid the best and at the time we didn't feel we could do that.''
In February last year, police went to Leach's and Brennan's Cairns home, one of about 200 they visited while investigating a murder. The couple has never been charged with or linked to that crime. While there, police found on a shelf the blister packs for RU486 and misoprostol. Thousands of women have terminated pregnancies using these drugs since import restrictions on RU486, the ''morning-after pill'', were eased in 2006. Many have done so legally and under doctors' supervision.
Brennan's sister had sent them the drugs from Ukraine. They had passed through customs, so he assumed they were legal. The couple had wanted a medical abortion at home because ''I didn't want her to go through the stress of having it sucked out or scraped out''. Leach was 19 at the time. She said: ''I can't even look after myself, so I couldn't look after someone else as well.''
They were not charged over the unlawful import of the drugs. Leach was charged with procuring her own miscarriage and Brennan with supplying the drugs. Soon their home was firebombed, Brennan's car was vandalised and they moved to a secret address with security cameras and guard dogs.
Leach was teary again on Thursday when a jury of eight women and four men took less than an hour to find them not guilty.
Obstetrician Caroline D'Costa was one of the first Australian doctors to prescribe the abortion drug RU-486 to patients.
She says the couple should never have faced criminal charges and the outcome of the trial is a sign the law should be changed.
" I believe that the fact that they've been found not guilty is a very clear demonstration that the people of Queensland do not think these laws are appropriate in the 21st century," she stressed.
Julie Hamblin, a health lawyer and member of ProChoice NSW, said, "I've been rather dismayed that, in all the publicity on the Cairns case, nobody's been focusing on the fact that the NSW criminal law is very similar to the Queensland law.''
Since a 1971 case that established the grounds for lawful abortions in NSW, common law rulings have allowed for more liberal interpretation, including that mental health risks extend to economic or social stress. But Hamblin warns the law is ''extremely precarious'' and open to fresh interpretation by other judges.
Ironically both NSW and Queensland have women premiers, but they are unwilling to go for changes, fearing backlash from conservatives.
Queensland Premier Anna Bligh used the social networking site Twitter today to say she 'supports the decriminalisation of abortion, but the majority of MPs do not, and a law change requires that majority.'
The NSW premier, Kristina Keneally, a Catholic, supports adoption for gay couples and the ordination of female priests. but reportedly opposes abortion.
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