The charges brought against a young couple from Queensland for taking the RU486 pill have dangerous ramifications for all Australian women, writes Samantha Campbell.

The Women’s Abortion Action Campaign (WAAC) is continuing its campaign of defence and support for the young Cairns couple who go to trial on 12 October 2010, charged under archaic abortion laws that still exist under the Queensland criminal code.

In 2009 the woman had a medical abortion at home using RU486 and misoprostol, drugs that were obtained from her partner’s relatives in the Ukraine along with doctor’s instructions for their use.

She faces seven years in prison and he faces three.

Whilst access to RU486 is restricted, due to strict control by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, it remains a legal drug in Australia for the purpose of medical abortion.

RU486 remains restricted because, as yet, no pharmaceutical company has applied to import and distribute it within Australia.

This leaves individual doctors the time consuming responsibility of having to apply to the TGA directly to be able to obtain and prescribe the drug for their patients.

These problematic circumstances ensure limited access to medical abortion with the use of RU486 for Australian women. RU486 is both legal in Australia and safe to use – with complications akin to that of a spontaneous miscarriage – and is available in about 35 other countries including the United States and France where it accounts for roughly one-third of abortions.

RU486 is a valid and safe option for abortion that should be widely available to Australian women in an effort to promote safe and affordable options for women seeking an abortion.

Abortion in Australia is legal, established by common law rulings in Queensland in 1986 and in NSW in 1971 that gave provisions for “lawful” abortions in cases where the woman’s physical or mental health are at risk from continuation of the pregnancy.

Provisions for abortion have also been made to include financial and social grounds for abortion at the discretion of individual doctors. Abortion is subsidised by a Medicare rebate and in that respect is recognised as a medical procedure.

The issue then ignites when abortion is treated with distinct difference from any other medical procedure under the law. Abortion is a medical procedure and should not be categorised differently in any legislation. All abortion laws should be repealed.

While the trial for the Cairns couple essentially remains a Queensland issue, the ramifications of charges brought under these archaic laws threaten all Australian women.

Abortion also remains within the NSW criminal code and while this is so, NSW women are at risk of similar prosecution and treatment to that received by the Cairns couple.

The dangerous contradiction between the law and state criminal codes in Australia presents a misleading reality for Australian women who believe they have complete legal access to abortion.

The legality of abortion in Australia is haunted by the fallacy of freedom of choice for women’s bodies by outdated sections of state criminal codes that remain ignorant to the needs and demands of Australian women.

The Women’s Abortion Action Campaign (WAAC NSW), alongside the Pro-Choice Action Collective (PCAC QLD) and Radical Women (VIC), are calling for all charges against the Cairns couple to be dropped.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh and Queensland state ministers have been repeatedly called upon to action the release of the couple from these charges.

In response, Anna Bligh and the Queensland state government claim that the case relates to the illegal method in which the abortion drugs were obtained.

Why then have the couple been charged under the sections of the criminal code specific to abortion?

The Queensland government has attempted to distract the facts of the case and the issue at the heart of these charges with claims of illegal importation, despite the clear charge of the couple under state abortion laws, not drug importation laws.

The Queensland government also maintained that the charges against the couple are valid despite the absence of proof that the woman was pregnant or that the drugs were used to cause a miscarriage; all they required was an ‘intent’ to procure a miscarriage in order for the couple to be charged under the state criminal code.

It is essential to acknowledge the absurdity of these charges and to rise together as a nation in solidarity with the mistreated couple.

This case is not isolated to Queensland as the Bligh government may intend to direct it, rather it raises a national issue for the protection of abortion rights in Australia and a woman’s right to choose.

Call to action: National rallies on Saturday 9 October 2010

The trial date for the Cairns case has been set to begin on 12 October 2010 and WAAC in NSW, alongside PCAC in Queensland and Radical Women in Victoria, are co-ordinating a National Day of Action on Saturday 9 October 2010 in solidarity with the Cairns couple.

We are calling for the Queensland government to drop all charges against the couple and repeal all abortion laws.

This national day of protest will unite supporters of abortion rights and draw attention to the archaic laws that in the 21st century still stipulate abortion as a crime. Never again should any woman in Australia be subject to the trauma faced by the Cairns couple for exercising every woman’s right to choose.

It is important for Australian women to recognise the unjust treatment of the Cairns couple and unite in making our voices heard.

The government needs to hear, loud and clear, that we do not accept the prejudiced treatment of abortion in current legislation, we do not accept any place for law in the decisions we as women make over our own bodies, we do not accept any mockery of the campaigning of our foremothers for abortion rights and we cannot allow the prosecution of the Cairns couple to take place and threaten our freedom of choice.

Visit the WAAC website for details of times and places for the national rallies on 9 October 2010.

Samantha Campbell is a student at Macquarie University studying a BA in Gender Studies. She has been involved in WAAC for seven months, contributing to efforts that support abortion rights.