This is a personal decision. Not a politician's.

“Being pregnant and giving birth could kill me; I could be sentencing a child to a life of suffering.”





If I became pregnant, there’s some chance I’d be a carrier for a genetic disorder that only affects boys. This condition would see any son I had, live a painful and restricted life before dying young. I’m also diabetic; something I wasn’t going to escape based on family history.

Both these diseases have haunted my families. Being pregnant and giving birth could kill me; I could be sentencing a child to a life of suffering.

So understandably, the decision about whether or not I have children has been very personal and fraught. It’s not a decision I would want anyone to make for me because no one understands my circumstances better than me.

The idea someone else could decide for me is abhorrent.

But one NSW Member of Parliament, Fred Nile, has decided he can.

Australian politician and Christian minister Fred Nile.

He’s on a crusade to change the law so that it recognises a foetus as a person. Working direct from the playbook of the radical right in the United States, Fred Nile is supporting a bill into the NSW parliament that would enshrine the concept of ‘foetal personhood’. That bill will be debated today.

This bill first arose following the tragic circumstances of Brodie Donegan and her family. In 2009, a drug-affected driver hit Ms Donegan, who was 8 months pregnant.


As well as causing extensive injuries to Ms Donegan, the accident meant that her daughter was stillborn. The driver received a short sentence because under NSW law the death of Ms Donegan’s unborn child couldn’t legally be considered murder.

Now, many people who are justifiably hurt and frustrated by the outcome in this case, want to see a change to the law. Niles’ response has been to push for this new Bill, called ‘Crimes Amendment (Zoe’s Law) Bill No. 2 2013 to be passed by the parliament. The Bill would mean that a foetus would be legally considered a person after 20 weeks gestation.

And here’s where the problem lies.

If we change our laws to ensure justice is done for pregnant women who lose their babies because of the criminal behaviour of others, then there is an argument that this new definition of ‘personhood’ also applies in other circumstances. If a foetus is a person at 20 weeks, then that suggests abortions that are carried out after this point in a pregnancy, are akin to murder.

Furthermore, those who argue that foetuses are people are able to jump straight from that position to outright banning or at least limiting a woman’s access to abortion. How does that work? Personhood doesn’t create two equal people – it reduces women to second-rate citizens in their own bodies, dividing the woman from her pregnancy.

A tragic car accident that prompted this debate.

It’s critical that we note here that this 20 week mark is not based on a medical view on viability of the feotus; it’s when, according to the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act a family can register a stillbirth.


Foetal legal personhood is already law in 38 states in the United States. Each of those states either restricts or even bans access to safe abortions.

In practical terms, what this means is women in the US risk their health and their families to access unsafe abortions, and are sometimes prosecuted and jailed for failing in their ‘legal duty’ to a ‘living person’ they are carrying.

Doctors may be prosecuted – or even killed – for doing their jobs and women may die because of a lack of access to safe care. Given Fred Nile’s public statements about the rights of women and his parliamentary history, it’s fair to say he has identified ‘legal personhood’ as a tactic to push his agenda.

It might seem obvious but the legal link between a woman and her pregnancy is important. Without it, a woman is reduced to an incubator or a non-person because of the ‘person’ she is carrying.

There are already measures in place to recognise formally, through the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act, the deaths of babies who are stillborn. And those who assault pregnant women can already be prosecuted; just not for murder.  So why the need to change the Crimes Act, unless it’s to criminalise pregnant women and potentially the doctors who treat them?

Edited at 5.34 12/09/13: Fred Nile is supporting the current bill in parliament; he did not introduce the bill. 

Claire Pullen is a moderator and occasional contributor for Destroy the Joint. If you would like to talk to your local representation about this issue, people in NSW can email their MLC and MLA here. If you live outside of NSW, try here. A fact sheet about the issue is also available from Family Planning.

Over to you – do you think a foetal personhood bill carries risks for women’s reproductive rights?