Monday, March 5, 2012

WA's planned 'foetal homicide' law is wrong, say feminists

This issue will be discussed at a forum
in the Perth Activist Centre on Wed
7 March 2012.
Perth-based women's health doctor Kamala Emanuel has hit out at the "dangerous implications" of a "foetal homicide" law proposed by the WA state government.

The law if passed would, for the first time, recognise an "unborn baby" as a human life.

The stated intent of the law would be to be create legal sanctions against people who assault a pregnant woman.

People could face life imprisonment under these laws -- "the same as a murder charge" – if an "unborn baby" dies. The law would also apply in situations where a foetus was hurt due to negligent driving.

"The state government's proposed laws reflect our view that any act of violence against a mother-to-be is an especially serious offence," attorney general Christian Porter said on February 26.

"Where an offender causes serious injury or death of an unborn child, the law must properly reflect the extreme emotional trauma such a loss can cause to the mother."

Emanuel, who is also a member of the Socialist Alliance, told Green Left Weekly that the government was taking a "completely wrong approach" to the issue.

"Women in violent relationships typically experience more violence while pregnant," she said. "We do need to provide social and legal protection for pregnant women, but not in a way that paves the way to deny women their rights in other contexts.

"This law is all about creating legal rights for foetuses."

Even though the government said that abortion rights were not being challenged, one of the first groups to announce its support for the proposed law was the anti-choice "Right to Life" organisation.

"More insidious," said Emanuel, "but just as dangerous" was the reaction of the local branch of the Australian Medical Association (AMA).

AMA WA president Dave Mountain told the February 26 West Australian that the state government should consider criminal penalties for cases where "extreme" homebirths or drug or alcohol consumption by pregnant women harmed a baby.

Emanuel said Mountain's position was "outrageous".

She said: "Ordinarily, no woman would intentionally harm her baby. In the situations referred to by Dr Mountain, women require social or medical assistance, not criminal sanctions."

Several US states have legal rights for foetuses – in some cases unborn foetuses have more legal rights than a live child. This has resulted in dangerous attacks on women's rights including the removal of newborn babies from their mother because of "junk food" consumption during pregnancy, forced caesarean section operations against the will of the woman and criminal charges for having sex during pregnancy against a doctor's advice.

Emanuel told GLW that the language used to describe the proposed law revealed its anti-woman character.

"It is a complete misnomer to even talk about an 'unborn child' – if it is not yet born, it is not yet a child," she said.

"The language of 'foetal homicide' should be a wake up call for feminists who should rightly view this as the thin edge of the wedge against abortion rights."

Prominent feminist activist Leslie Cannold told Fairfax media that she does not support the proposed law.

"It's a bad idea, it's unnecessary, it is a precursor to restricting abortions," she said.

[This article by Alex Bainbridge was written for Green Left Weekly #913. This issue will be discussed at a forum in the Perth Activist Centre on Wednesday 7 March 2012.]