AUSTRALIA – Woman prosecuted in New South Wales for self-use of medical abortion pills

A Sydney woman who bought pills on the internet has been prosecuted for “self-administering a drug to procure a miscarriage”. In a decision on 5 July, made public only on 14 August, the Local Court magistrate said the woman, who was 28 at the time, had a “clear intent to procure a miscarriage”. In fact, she was beyond 20 weeks of pregnancy and was unable to find a clinic that would do an abortion for her.

He was reported to say: “The ongoing debate regarding pro- and anti-abortion is a polarising issue within the community” and it was his job to apply the law rather than “express views either way”. It is an offence under the NSW Crimes Act for a pregnant woman to unlawfully administer to herself “any drug or noxious thing” or unlawfully use “any instrument or other means” with the intention of procuring a miscarriage. This section of the Crimes Act has remained unchanged for 117 years. A recent push by the Greens to decriminalise abortion failed to secure parliamentary support. However, previous judgments on abortion have established that some abortions can be legal if a doctor determines it necessary to prevent harm to the life or health of the woman.

The offence is punishable by up to 10 years in jail but the case was dealt with summarily (without a jury) in a Local Court where the maximum sentence that can be applied is two years. The court heard the woman had five children aged between four and nine and fell pregnant in February 2015. She was convicted of the offence, however, and given a three-year good behaviour bond. It was also reported that she had found someone on the internet who sold her misoprostol tablets in a South African package for AUS $2,000. After ingesting the medication and feeling unwell, a friend apparently took her to a hospital where an emergency caesarean was performed. The question of whether she was prosecuted because she tried to abort so late in the pregnancy remains unanswered.

Julie Hamblin a Sydney lawyer with long experience in health law, was reported to say: “What this decision does is demonstrate that doctors and their patients risk having this law used against them at any time… Many abortions that are currently being carried out might not withstand legal scrutiny, but the law is mostly not strictly applied. What this case does, I think, is show that you can’t assume that you’re okay because the law won’t be enforced. This case came out of the blue, and now this woman has a criminal record.”

SOURCE: Sydney Morning Herald, by Michaela Whitbourn,14 August 2017 ; Junkee, by Sam Langford, 16 August 2017 ; PHOTO