What Is Zoe's Law And How Does It Affect Women?

A protest was held outside NSW Parliament on Thursday against the reintroduction of a contested bill that criminalises the serious harm or death of a foetus during a criminal act such as a car crash. 

Reverend Fred Nile has tried unsuccessfully to pass the bill, known as Zoe's Law, in the past, with the issue being reignited following a fatal crash in Sydney's west in September which claimed the lives of two woman, including Katherine Hoang who was 38 weeks pregnant with twins.

Protesters have joined the chorus of legal and medical bodies as well as women's rights groups who argue the bill could have serious implications for the state's abortion law reform by giving legal rights to a fetus --   a claim the Christian Democratic leader denies.

But his attempt to have the bill sent to a conscience vote in the final weeks of NSW parliament are expected to be futile with premier Gladys Berejiklian opposing it.

"The intent of the bill is absolutely on the money in terms of what people want to achieve but we need to make sure we don't have any unintended consequences, that's my concern," Berejiklian said.

Instead, she's referred the issue to legal and medical experts in order to introduce new laws if her government is returned after the state election next year to recognise the death of unborn children during a criminal act.

What is Zoe's Law?

In December 2009, NSW woman Brodie Donegan lost her unborn daughter Zoe after she was hit by a drugged driver in December 2009.

The driver was not charged over Zoe's death, and the baby was listed as one of Donegan's injuries.

This comes down to the "born alive rule" applying in New South Wales, a common law rule that states a homicide can only be committed on a legally recognised person, and that a person is not legally recognised until "it has breathed".

By extension, harm to a fetus is considered part of an offence of grievous bodily harm to the pregnant mother.

READ MORE: NSW Parliament To Debate Controversial Zoe's Law

Katherine and Bronco Hoang are newlyweds who married earlier this year. Katherine and her unborn twins were killed in a car crash in September IMAGE: Supplied

The Crimes Amendment (Zoe's Law) Bill 2013 (No. 2), earlier named Zoe's Law, seeks to change this by amending the Crimes Act to establish a separate offence for conduct causing serious harm to, or the destruction of, the fetus of a pregnant woman.

The legislation passed the NSW lower house in Novemer 2013 but could not pass the upper house.

Donegan recently told The Daily Telegraph she never gave Nile permission to name the law after her daughter, but that she supports the principal.

Amendments have since been made to the bill, including changing the definition of a fetus to being a minimum of 24 weeks and reference to "a child in utero" to "fetus of a pregnant woman".

The offence would not apply to abortion specifically, medical procedures or to conduct engaged in, by or with the consent of the mother.

What does it mean for women?

Legal and medical bodies say the proposed law sets a "dangerous precedent" for women's reproductive rights, mainly safe access to abortion.

“This Bill is unnecessary and presents a real risk to women’s reproductive rights by giving legal personhood to a fetus,” said NSW Family Planning Director of Medical Services Dr Bateson.

Bateson said the bill's passage could complicate abortion law in NSW, the last Australian state where abortion is still technically a crime.

“This change to the law could be used to further restrict access to lawful abortions and we’re worried this provision could see women who have an abortion treated as serious criminals," she said.

Protestors outside NSW Parliament in 2013. Image: AAP

She said, globally, similar laws had been the first step towards the prosecution of women for exercising reproductive choice.

In pledging to introduce new laws if her government is returned after the state election next year, the NSW premier said she wants to have a "fresh look" at the issue with the help of experts.

"I want to ensure that we protect the rights of women," Berejiklian said.

Contact the author: ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au / Cflorez@networkten.com.au.