In a much talked about Queensland abortion trial, the not guilty verdicts may change legal implications for women who procure their own abortion, according to a medical ethicist. In the historical verdict a Cairns District Court jury yesterday dismissed the 18 month old case against Tegan Simone Leach, 21, and her partner Sergie Brennan, 22, who had been charged with procuring an abortion and supplying drugs to procure an abortion, respectively. Ms Leach had taken the abortion drug RU486 because according to her she was incapable of caring for a child. They were charged after police found empty packets of the abortion drugs RU486 and Misoprostol while searching their home in an unrelated investigation in February last year. RU486 and Misoprostol are legally available but their use is restricted. Mr Brennan's sister sent the drugs from Ukraine.
The hit the news after debates came forth on existing Queensland's abortion law and mounting pressure on the state government to decriminalize the practice.
University of Queensland medical ethics Associate Professor Malcolm Parker said that the not guilty verdicts have over-ruled the law. He said that according to a strict interpretation of the criminal code it appeared an offence had been committed. “So what the jury is saying in effect is that even though the law might say one thing, we don't think this person is guilty… It's certainly a potential precedent. I qualify that by waiting to look at the detail of the case and the judge's instructions to the jury,” he said. In his closing directions, Judge Bill Everson told the jury that they need to agree that what Ms Leach took was harmful for her. Queensland Council of Civil Liberties president Michael Cope however agreed with the jury saying, “[It was a] sensible decision by the jury…It's always difficult to know what motivates a jury but I'm sure part of it was the common feeling that [Ms Leach and Mr Brennan] had been put through more than enough…One of the great things about juries in history is that they have been prepared to deliver verdicts contrary to the law and this is what they have done in this case,” he said.
Queensland's criminal code says abortion is unlawful unless it is performed to “preserve the woman from serious harm to her life or physical or mental health”. Elective abortions can only be legally carried out in the first trimester of pregnancy and usually take place in private clinics. Victoria and the ACT have however decriminalized abortion.
According to Australian Medical Association Queensland president Gino Pecoraro the verdict has still not made it clear for obstetricians whether the procedure is legal. He urged the government to clarify the abortion laws. “This [case] makes absolutely no difference to the concern that the small number of doctors who work in this area have. The law is no less dubious, no less cloudy…[Doctors have a] right to have certainty in legislation that if they're performing a medical termination in pregnancy that they'll be protected.”
Premier Anna Bligh said on Twitter, “As I've stated many times, I support decriminalization of abortion, but majority of MPs do not, law change requires that majority.” Attorney-General Cameron Dick confirmed the government would not vote to change abortion law, which would require a conscience vote.