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 All abortion laws should be repealed.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.

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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.

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In a policy welcomed by anti-abortion campaigners but dismissed by critics as propaganda, women in northern Italy who cannot afford to have their babies are to be offered €4,500 not to have an abortion.

Roberto Formigoni, the centre-right governor of the Lombardy region, said that the offer was to fulfil his pledge in regional elections in March that no woman should have to have an abortion because of economic difficulties.

During the regional poll the ruling centre-right coalition, led by Silvio Berlusconi, the Prime Minister, made a pitch for the Catholic vote by supporting Vatican policies on issues such as abortion and birth control.

Mr Formigoni said that, despite cuts in the budget, $5 million had been set aside to allow women in economic difficulty to be given €250 a month for 18 months.

If a woman told doctors she wanted an abortion for economic reasons she would be referred to a new centre for helping life for evaluation.

The option of accepting the check will be presented to women in abortion clinics during the consultations they have prior to having an abortion, the site said. The region’s health department said economic reasons were the predominant reason that woman have abortions.

Critics attacked the measure as “a short-term solution to a long-term problem,” according to Italian media.

The fund is called “Nasko,” a play on the Italian word “nasco,” which roughly translates to “I’m being born.”

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