Last night, the couple being tried in the Australian state of Queensland was found not guilty on all charges of obtaining an illegal abortion and of supplying the drugs to do so. According to ABC News Australia, applause broke out in the courtroom when the jury announced its unanimous decision, which it reached after less than an hour of deliberation.
Tegan Leach, 21, was charged with inducing an abortion using RU486 that her boyfriend, Sergie Brennan, 22, had illegally procured from Ukraine. Leach was facing up to seven years in prison, Brennan three. This is the first time in 24 years that anyone in Queensland has been tried for obtaining an abortion, and the law that Leach and Brennan stood accused of breaking has been on the books since 1899.
The trial lasted two days, and sparked outrage and collective action that ramped up as the trial date approached. Over 50,000 people have signed a petition demanding abortion law reform in Queensland (if you’re in Australia, you can still sign it!), and there were protests in Brisbane as the trial approached. There have been numerous op-eds penned calling for reform and expressing outrage that in Australia in 2010, a woman can be tried for terminating a pregnancy.
The 1899 law makes abortion illegal except when to protect the mother’s life or well-being. RU486 has been legal in Queensland since 2006, but as columnist Nina Funnell pointed out this week, there are only 81 people in Australia who are authorized to provide it, at least 33 of whom are in states other than Queensland. So while Queensland law allows medical abortions in the direst circumstances, they are in fact logistically rather hard to procure. This trial has only made it harder: as Kate Marsh, Public Liaison Officer at Children by Choice explained to me last year, when this couple was charged, some doctors in Queensland stopped providing medical abortions altogether. One of the advantages of medical abortion is that it’s a good deal cheaper than surgical abortion, so the removal of this option from many parts of the state means that women have to opt for a more expensive abortion, often traveling long distances to obtain it.
Last September, I did a Feministing Five interview with Marsh, who explained that the charges have seemingly shaken some Australian women out of their apathy when it comes to reproductive rights. While abortion is fully legal in most Australian states, in Queensland and NSW, the life-and-wellbeing restrictions still apply. But until the Leach trial, Marsh said, people were largely unaware of those restrictions. “A lot of people think that the debate’s been had, and that it is legal and that everything’s fine,” Marsh said. “And I think it’s come to that point partly because there haven’t been charges laid in so long… but I guess a lot of people don’t realize how tenuous that situation is and that the problems that the law poses go so much further than one or two particular people being charged.”
Marsh is right, of course. This case has ramifications not just for Leach and Brennan, but for everyone living in Queensland. If Leach can be charged, there’s no reason other women can’t be accused of inducing abortion, as well. The law clearly needs to be reformed, as does the New South Wales law. The prosecution appeared to acknowledge this, telling jurors that if they wanted the law changed, “the place to do it was at the ballot box, not the courtroom.” Dr. Caroline DaCosta, one of the doctors who fought hard for the legalization of RU486 in Queensland, concluded that that the archaic law is “not applicable to the practice of abortion in Australia today.”
Despite the popular demand, legislative change seems unlikely. According to one former Queensland MP, the majority of Queensland Members of Parliament support changing the outdated law, but recent efforts to do so have been stymied by the state’s Premier, Anna Bligh. While Bligh has said that she is pro-choice and would support legal reform, she claims that such a change would not have the necessary parliamentary support.
For now, I’m thrilled that neither Leach nor Brennan will be going to jail. I’ll keep you updated as we hear more about the trial and the verdict.