The rise of fetal personhood notions in WA politics

Things are not looking great in Western Australia for the rights of pregnant people at the moment. Yesterday we had this:

Unborn babies given recognition in new laws

Causing the death of an unborn child will be viewed similar to murder by courts as part of new laws the state government wants to bring in.[…]

And today the Australian Medical Association has jumped on the fetal personhood bandwagon, mostly to feed the flames of their disgust at women choosing their place of birth, with a side serve of pushing the criminalisation of women’s alcoholism:

Charge reckless mums: doctors’ union:

“Doctors want the State Government to consider criminal penalties when unborn babies are negligently endangered in homebirths or by mothers who take drugs or drink excessively.

Australian Medical Association WA president Dave Mountain said there should be penalties to encompass the “wild extremes” of homebirths, foetal alcohol syndrome and unborn babies affected by their mothers’ drug use.

“We’re talking about when people choose to proceed with a homebirth when it’s clear that there is an extreme danger to the baby and particularly when that’s encouraged by people who should know better,” he said. “There should be circumstances where people who actively encourage endangerment of the baby in that situation are held to account.”

Dr Mountain said pregnant women who took alcohol or drugs to excess knowing it would harm their unborn child should also be held criminally responsible.

“If you feed a child alcohol or drugs you would expect to be prosecuted,” he said.[…]”

What’s “to excess”? Why, exactly, should pregnant alcoholics be thrown in jail, and what purpose will that serve? How about smokers? How about people who eat raw salad without washing it first? How about people who have a whole glass of wine, or even two? How about people who take medications which are relatively (or absolutely) contraindicated in pregnancy? How about people who exercise “too much” to the point of their body temperature rising significantly? How about people who gain more than the industry-sanctioned amount of weight in pregnancy (which, for very fat people, is zero kilograms)? How about people who haven’t actually taken that pregnancy test yet, but their period is late or who have some pregnancy symptoms, who drink more than the “recommended” amount of alcohol (which, currently, “officially”, is zero)? How about people who reach for that second or third cup of coffee? How about people who make informed decisions to decline certain obstetric interventions?

When I was pregnant, I was in at least six of those categories. Yes, I “fed” my “unborn child” alcohol and drugs, and I gained weight in pregnancy – in fact, I worked pretty damn hard to gain weight despite my hyperemesis, so that sure counts as “knowingly” – and I drank coffee. But they won’t come for me. You know why? I’m white. I’m middle-class. I had an obstetrician who supported (and often encouraged) my decisions. I don’t look like one of THOSE women.

A newsflash to the AMA and the WA Liberal Party: A fetus is not an “unborn child” or a “baby” unless its host says it is. And it should never be a person in the eyes of the law. You know why? Because then these words:

Dr Mountain said the AMA was reassured by Mr Porter’s commitment that the legislation would not affect WA’s abortion laws.

would be completely meaningless. And now, we know that these attempt at reassurance are completely empty, coming from you. Dave Mountain, when you refer to “unborn children” as persons, when you deny us sovereignty over our own bodies, when you claim that legal activities should become illegal as soon as there’s an embryo inside us: we do not – we cannot – believe that you care about abortion rights. We cannot believe that you care about the rights of the people right in front of you.

Western Australians with uteruses, and our allies, should be afraid – and angry.

Categories: gender & feminism, medicine, Politics, social justice

Tags: , , ,

24 replies

  1. I am very afraid and very angry. I hate that the AMA has such power to command media and government.

  2. “wild extremes” of homebirths

    I think he meant ‘where obstetricians don’t get paid’. FFS
    But let me guess, unborn children killed as the result of intimate partner violence, car accidents, or some other means not directly done by the mother will still be tragic accidents?

  3. Mindy: Nope, in the first article they’re talking specifically of calling it homicide when domestic violence, etc, results in the loss of a pregnancy, and all the rhetoric is about “unborn children”. I see absolutely no reason why the loss of a wanted pregnancy couldn’t be considered amongst the gravest category of grievous bodily harm, rather than homicide – and no need to invoke fetal personhood in order for society to consider this a horrendous assault upon a pregnant person.

  4. What happens if a pregnant woman goes into sudden labour and doesn’t make it to a hospital? Does she have to prove that she wasn’t planning a home/car/ladies toilets birth?

  5. I seem to remember a similar issue being raised on the Canadian Dykes on Mykes podcast a couple (few?) years ago over the Unborn Victims of Crime Act. The problem with these sorts of laws is that they attempt to use the language of personhood, as you said, to prioritise the rights of the foetus over the rights of the woman. Very scary. 😦
    Good post! Thanks!!

  6. Coming from the UK, I’m amazed at how much hostility there is to homebirths here. You do hear some in the UK from individuals, but the general position, especially from the state and doctors, is that it’s fine. And indeed, the major concern is about the lack of access to homebirths, and the failure of many health authorities to provide access to homebirths, due to a lack of midwives (and a lack of money). This is despite the fact that the govt has promised that every woman who wants a homebirth can have one. The hostility here seems even more bizarre in a country where some women don’t live near to maternity hospitals and would have to be transported by air to get to them (this happens in the UK, but is much rarer)!
    How on earth would ‘wild extremes’ be defined or enforceable anyway? I mean if they mean ‘against medical advice’, I would imagine that professional midwives aren’t going to agree to help high risk women give birth at home anyway (and how many high risk women would want to take the risk), so women who chose to do so would be doing so unsupported. And, in that case, plan for a hospital birth and just ‘run out of time to get to hospital’ when you go into labour.

  7. Fun facts.
    1) Terminating a pregnancy in Western Australia is only legal if there have been less than 20 weeks since your last period, and you are over 16 years of age.
    2) There are less than half a dozen known clinics which supply pregnancy termination services in Western Australia.
    3) All of these are in the Perth metropolitan area.
    4) The next nearest locations outside the Perth metro area are either in South Australia (where you’ll need to have two different doctors agreeing that your physical and/or mental health will be endangered if you continue with the pregnancy, or that there’s severe foetal abnormality) or in South Africa (where you’ll have to be less than 13 weeks pregnant; between 13 and 20 weeks you’ll need to be able to prove you’re at risk physically or mentally, that the child was conceived via rape or incest, that the child is severely mentally or physically damaged, or that your financial and economic situation makes it impossible for you to remain pregnant).
    I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m so glad the Liberal Party of Western Australia has decided I’m less of a person than a potential inhabitant of my uterus. I mean, just look at all the options we have…

  8. But they won’t come for me. You know why? I’m white. I’m middle-class.

    I’m writing about these laws, and one of the points I would like to make is about their selective (and punitive) application. It’d be stronger with a reference, so does anyone know of a study or survey on this? I’ve been looking, but most of what I’ve found hasn’t really analysed the applications of such laws along, say, class or race lines. (Failing that, I think that the general difference in court success along the same lines would be compelling enough.)

  9. I see absolutely no reason why the loss of a wanted pregnancy couldn’t be considered amongst the gravest category of grievous bodily harm, rather than homicide – and no need to invoke fetal personhood


  10. Feminist Avatar, Mindy is on the money (literally) when she says “the obstetricians don’t get paid”. One of the key distinctions between maternity care here and in the UK is the prevalence of private health insurance and the consequent norm of many women seeing private obstetricians in pregnancy, rather than a norm of midwifery care.
    Obstetricians (specialists in maternity complications) also have a fixed interest in broadening the definition of a ‘high risk’ pregnancy to include more and more mothers. Negotiating childbearing in a hospital setting with a “high-risk” stamp on your forehead is a traumatising, disempowering experience for many women and not obviously linked to better outcomes.
    Ultimately, mothers must have the right to balance their own set of risks and midwives must the right to support them to the best of their ability. “Wild extremes” to the AMA is any homebirth at all. They have publicly stated their intention to wipe out homebirth. They continue to lobby government and harass midwives. It’s nothing less than a witch hunt and a gross violation of women’s rights to bodily autonomy.

  11. More superstitious ideological rubbish imported from the Tea Party heartland of the US.
    They are doing hit and run in the state legislatures there. When these sorts of policies fail to win through in one state, as occurred in Virginia concerning intrusive ultrasounds recently, they’ll try another variation elsewhere else, ’till another component is in place and then loudly claim definitive victory, trying to induce momentum as to acceptance of the whole suite of repressive social policy laws they want in.
    That other western countries elsewhere eventually become targets also is a logical progression; it also would be useful against the argument that these laws are exclusive to the illiterate fundamentalist boondoggles of the far midwest and deep south.

  12. I don’t look like one of Those Women either, as a white middle class woman living in safe suburbia but I’m in the firing line of this stuff in the most pointed manner. I have been warning pro choice feminists for some years now that the homebirth regulations are the back door to foetal personhood in Australia because the right realises Australians, in the main, accepting of the current state of abortion despite how problematic and flawed our access may be. Our movements around birth and abortion need to galvanise in concert now because it all hinges on the same principle: the right of women to own their own bodies regardless of fertility status, at all times, in all ways.

  13. Last year’s Pamela Denoon lecture (I just discovered) was given by Dr Leslie Cannold about the “unfinished business” of Australian abortion law, and seems very relevant here. Should we be campaigning for a federal solution?

  14. Paul Walter: We have quite our own flavour of entrenched misogynist conservatives here, and would have even if the US wasn’t there. Big-C papist Catholicism is embedded, and has a strong grasp on the provision of women’s health facilities here as well as on some aspects of politics. Combine that with WA’s tendency to swing righter than the Feds (I fear an Abbott govt +++!), and this unfortuitous collision with the AMA’s witch-hunt against midwives, and we have a nasty, nasty combination.
    No need to invoke the teabaggers. Theocons here are doing just fine without them. Not everything is about the USA.

  15. That is disheartening Lauredhel, I was thinking along the same lines as paul that it was imported culture not homegrown. Somehow the fact that it has always been here makes it worse.

  16. Mindy: I remember clearly the fight for somewhat increased abortion rights in WA back at the end of the 20th century. The Davenport reforms only got passed because people fought tooth and nail against vigorous opposition; and it only came to legislative light in the first place because the DPP charged two doctors with performing an unlawful abortion. These charges were laid after a teacher found out a Maori single mother had a fetus in the fridge awaiting culturally appropriate burial rituals. The department also seized and kept the fetus, as supposed “evidence of the crime”.
    Hospitals and clinics cancelled scheduled abortion procedures, nursing hierarchies ordered nurses to have nothing to do with abortions, and there were at least two incidents of septic complications following DIY abortion attempts. One forced-birther actually released medical records from an abortion clinic to the press. The same year the reforms were finally passed, the Pope issued a statement of grave concern about WA’s direction, and a pro-choice AMA president was replaced by a Catholic one… interesting.

  17. I’m starting to feel more and more like I’m living in a Margaret Atwood novel.

  18. Concerns over the AMA’s “engouraged by people whi should know better” pointing the finger at Midwives & they would love they ability to prosecute midwives who support a woman’s decision to choose her place of birth!
    Why bother having command over our own bodies shall we just starting lining up for caesarean’s for every birth? Shall we just an a lobotomy aswell to increase compliance?
    Where are the freedom/rights for women to have a say over their bodies and decide what is best for their children going?

  19. Nik last year I read about a research paper written by an Obs discussing whether caesarians were safer for women than natural births and whether Drs should be routinely doing them. Scary stuff.

  20. No arguments Lauredhel, particularly after Morrison’s effort on asylum seekers, which you are aware of.
    I thought to mention something along the lines of your comment about WA, does seem increasingly “Texas” over there.

  21. Just when I thought I couldn’t despise the WA Liberal Party more. *seeth*

  22. This is perhaps where some lessons could be learned from The National Childbirth Trust in the 70s in the UK, who campaigned for greater freedom of choice and pushed for ‘natural’ childbirth, by which they meant less medical intervention (not vaginal versus caesarean which it has come to mean today). Today, they are often viewed as the breastfeeding ‘nazis’, but they were absolutely central to ensuring that medical intervention in childbirth is least a topic of debate in the UK, which along with less intervention= less cost for the NHS, has meant that this is a much more nuanced debate.


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