Judging pregnant women


Bodily integrity is central to the concept of human rights. Our freedom hinges on the right to self-determination and personal autonomy, and for this reason reproductive choice has always been one of the cornerstones of feminism.

Yet in Australia, as in much of the world, women’s bodily integrity is being eroded via a relentless attack on abortion access that is changing the way society views pregnant (and all) women.

Notorious Christian Democrat leader Fred Nile is proposing a new law in NSW Parliament that seeks to recognise a foetus as a person from the moment of conception. If successful Zoe’s Law could see people -including pregnant women - charged with manslaughter for killing a foetus or embryo.

Meanwhile the QLD police union is seeking the right to imprison ‘risk-taking’ pregnant women in order to monitor their drug and alcohol consumption. The union claims that the rights of the ‘unborn child’ must be considered ahead of the rights of the mother. 


In current NSW and QLD law, destruction of a foetus (not including abortion) falls under the crime of ‘grievous bodily harm’, as such recognising that the foetus is not separate from the body of the pregnant woman.

By granting personhood upon conception Zoe’s Law would separate the foetus from the woman and could potentially implicate women who seek abortions and doctors who perform them. Likewise, whilst the QLD police union’s proposal is limited to women with substance dependencies, there is nothing to stop its parameters being extended to include any behaviours that society in all its judgemental wisdom deems inappropriate.

With public judgement of pregnant women already at an all time high, women run a real and frightening risk of being relegated to second-class citizens whose rights are completely subordinate to the foetus they carry from the moment they discover they are pregnant.

Zoe’s Law clearly draws inspiration from Republicans in the US who seek- amongst other increasingly outrageous laws- to force pregnant rape victims to have their rapist’s baby or risk jail for ‘tampering with evidence’,  and to define abortion at any stage as ‘murder’. Naturally they make no exception for rape, incest or health complications, because, ‘[t]here’s still some of us that believe life begins at conception.’

Perhaps the greatest success of the anti-abortion movement has been convincing so many that it was once generally accepted that from the moment the sperm penetrates the ova, the fertilised egg has all the rights of a fully-fledged person, and that the legalisation of abortion was a betrayal of this biblical value.

In fact, the ‘life at conception’ movement is a relatively recent phenomenon that grew out of the backlash to Roe v Wade, the 1973 US supreme court decision that legalised abortion again. Up until its criminalisation in the late 19th century, abortion was so widely accepted that abortificant providers advertised their wares in newspapers.

Women were urged to take abortion-inducing potions before the ‘quickening’, usually around the 16-20 week mark when the woman first feels the foetus move inside her and which corresponds to the time when the soul was thought to enter the body.

That women were left to decide for themselves whether or not to proceed with their pregnancies indicates a surprisingly greater degree of bodily integrity than many women enjoy now. Even the Catholic Church, which viewed abortion as a sin, did not consider it murder providing it was induced before the quickening.

Shortly after Roe v Wade restored bodily integrity to women, celebrity pastor and father of the anti-abortion movement Jerry Falwell began a campaign to turn a largely indifferent Evangelical population against abortion, which until that time overwhelmingly regarded it as a matter best left between a woman and her doctor.

Falwell’s Moral Majority envisaged an America that was pro-life, pro-family, pro-moral and pro-America. In other words, they wanted to overturn the sexual and women’s revolutions and go back to a simpler time when women knew their place as wives and mothers.

How did they achieve this? By claiming something even the Bible doesn’t: that zygotes, embryos and foetuses are persons in their own right. The Moral Majority reframed the abortion debate away from the rights of women to the ‘right to life’ and in exporting its views across the globe has placed pregnant women under the microscope.

The result is a population that grows increasingly uncomfortable with allowing pregnant women to decide what is best for themselves and their pregnancy. From waiters who refuse to serve pregnant women a single glass of wine even when given the all clear by doctors to a mass pouring of outrage and scorn towards a pregnant celebrity who (contritely and tearfully) admitted to smoking the odd cigarette while pregnant, even supposedly laid back Australians are quick to judge the behaviours of pregnant women. 

That is not to say that issues like foetal alcohol syndrome and drug dependencies should not be addressed –privately. But publically judging women and denying them their freedom is a clear violation of their bodily integrity and leads to misuse of the law as is already happening in the United States.

A new study has identified 413 separate cases where pregnant American women ‘were denied a wide range of basic human rights, including the right to life, liberty, equal protection and due process of law’.  These include:

• A woman imprisoned by a judge to prevent her getting an abortion.

• A woman charged with child endangerment and driving under the influence even though her blood alcohol was under the legal limit.

• A woman charged with murder when her foetus did not survive her suicide attempt.

• A woman forced to undergo a caesarian that killed both her and her foetus.

The bodies of pregnant women are not public property. While consideration should be given to foetuses once women choose to proceed with pregnancies, to treat even fertilised eggs and embryos as persons means that pregnant women automatically lose their status as autonomous individuals.

The ‘life at conception’ movement does not mean a return to traditional ‘pro-life’ values. These values did not exist en masse before 1973. Rather, it spells a dark future in which women are denied reproductive choice and are treated as mere incubators, judged by society and imprisoned by law because their value lies only in their ability to successfully give birth to the next generation.