The Other Abortion Myth—the Failure of the Common Law

Abstract

The 2006 trial of Suman Sood put criminal abortion on the public agenda for the first time in 25 years in NSW. Response to the case highlights tenacious myths about abortion law in Australia; namely that the common law “is an ass” that allows for abortion only by way of a lack of application of the law. By briefly explaining the history of abortion in Australia, I argue that the Sood case does not represent a general failure of the common law to allow abortion, nor does it support the popular myth that abortion is “technically” illegal, or that doctors who perform abortions have historically been the target of the criminal law in Australia. I show that contrary to myths promoted particularly around the 1998 Western Australian reforms, abortion has long been lawful in Australia, and the common law has merit compared to other regulatory regimes. Hence, arguments for alternative abortion regimes should not depend on myths which are shown to be unrepresentative of the political and legal situation in Australia.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Similarly, once Queensland law was tested in 1986 it was also found to allow abortion (R v Bayliss and Cullen (1986) 9 Qld Lawyer Reps). The perception of illegality impacted on Queensland abortion provision, not the law itself (Wiseman 2006, 23)

  2. 2.

    In 2008 the Victorian Parliament passed the Abortion Law Reform Act, addressing this issue.

  3. 3.

    I am grateful to the reviewer of this journal for making this distinction more clear to me.

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Cases cited

  1. CES v Superclinics (Australia) Pty Ltd 1995 38 NSWLR 47

  2. King v Bourne 1939 1 KB 687

  3. R v Bayliss and Cullen 1986 9 Qld Lawyer Reps

  4. R v Davidson 1969 VR 667

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  9. Superclinics Australia Pty Ltd v CES & Ors S88/1996 (11 September1996)

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Correspondence to Kate Gleeson.

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Gleeson, K. The Other Abortion Myth—the Failure of the Common Law. Bioethical Inquiry 6, 69–81 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11673-008-9131-4

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Keywords

  • Abortion
  • Law
  • Sood
  • Common law