The impending trial of a young Queensland woman for allegedly illegally aborting her pregnancy has no precedent in Australia.
The finding by prominent obstetrician and abortion law reform campaigner Caroline de Costa reinforces how intensely the prosecution of Tegan Leach and her partner, Sergie Brennan, both of Cairns, will be watched.
The case is due to return to the District Court next month, with Ms Leach charged with attempting to procure an abortion under a 111-year-old provision of the Queensland criminal code, carrying a maximum of seven years’ jail. Mr Brennan is charged with supplying drugs to procure an abortion.
Both have been committed to stand trial.
“Over the past five years, I have been researching the history of abortion in Australia, particularly in Queensland, through medical, legal and police records,” Professor de Costa writes in a new book, Never, Ever, Again.
“My research has not produced a single previous case of a woman being charged with procuring her own abortion since the 1899 (criminal) code was first promulgated (in Queensland).
“What’s more, I have found no evidence that any woman anywhere in Australia has ever been so charged.” Ms Leach is alleged to have terminated her pregnancy in December 2008 with RU486, the abortion drug that could not be brought into the country legally until 2006.
Professor de Costa played an important role in having the ban overturned by federal parliament, and ran the first service using RU486 in Cairns. However, she was not aware of, nor involved in, the couple’s alleged use of an illegally imported batch of the drug.
Professor de Costa’s book, to be published next month, details prosecutions under Queensland’s anti-abortion law between 1899 and 1970. Most convictions were under Section 224 of the criminal code, banning attempts to procure a miscarriage “whether she is or is not with child”, and many were of women who performed so-called backyard procedures.
Among them was a woman named Jones who in 1929 was charged under Section 224 with “using an instrument” to abort a woman. When the woman died of septicemia, the charge was upgraded to murder. But the court threw this out after accepting a defence objection to evidence being taken for a Section 224 charge being used in a capital case.
However, Professor de Costa could find no record of a Section 225 charge, under which Ms Tegan is being prosecuted for allegedly procuring her own miscarriage.
“That is why I have written this book,” she says.
“I believe that punishing a woman for making the decision . . . was inappropriate in the 19th century. It is entirely so in the 21st century.”