The story that has put abortion back in the dock
Tegan Leach has become the unwitting “it” girl for abortion reform in Queensland. Unwitting, because who would have knowingly decided to sign up for the sort of exposure that has been thrust on this Cairns teenager, all because she made a choice thousands of women have made before her to abort a baby she knew she was not ready to care for.
However, the charge she faces is that she allegedly did not do it through the proper channels.
Tegan is expected to sell her story exclusively to a women’s magazine when the dust has finally settled on this case and she is legally able to speak freely outside of court, for hers is a case that has opened a hornet’s nest of debate about the rights or wrongs of do-it-yourself drug-induced abortions in Australia and women’s ability to access them.
But when the 19-year-old from Mt Sheridan found out she was pregnant late last year, I can only imagine publicity would have been the last thing she wanted.
Now, of course, she is uncontrollably caught up in a nationally unfurling hit drama series in which she is the reluctant star.
Tegan and her Ukrainian-born boyfriend Sergie Brennan, 21, earlier this month, silent and grimly hanging on to each other, their eyes firmly diverted from the media circus as they were ushered by their lawyers to and from the courthouse, were committed to stand trial on charges under Queensland’s century-old criminal code that have lain dormant for decades.
Tegan is facing a possible seven years in jail for allegedly procuring her own miscarriage while Sergie could get up to three years for allegedly supplying the abortion drugs to her.
After the pair was committed, I rode down in the courthouse lift with them and gently asked how they were “holding up”. Their lawyer, of course, quickly directed them not to say anything.
At that point, Sergie, who was standing behind Tegan, put both his arms protectively around her, and she flashed him a brief grateful smile.
The couple must be living their worst nightmare.
As well as the terrifying frenzy of media attention that has descended on them, the political maelstrom they have stumbled right into the middle of, and the hatred and scorn that has been directed at them - including a molotov cocktail thrown at their house and their car being vandalised - they face years behind bars if a jury finds them guilty.
The charges relate to the March 30 discovery, by police in their home, of empty packets of prescription-only abortion drugs Mifolian, a version of RU486, and the expellent Misoprostol, which police alleged at their committal hearing had been sent to them from the Ukraine and which had been used by Tegan to abort her unwanted baby at eight weeks.
But this history-making case could so easily have passed under the radar.
A busier day, a less meticulous checking of the daily charge sheets (there are pages of them; mostly relating to druggies, drunks and alcohol-fuelled thugs) and their case could have been missed. But I don’t expect they’ll be thanking me for that any time soon.
None of the other local media organisations, which receive the lists each day by email, spotted them but, for me, the unusual charges leapt out from the page.
Images of backwoods inbreeds leapt to mind; some redneck father who had impregnated his daughter and wanted to get rid of the evidence without authorities cottoning on.
What other logical explanation could there be for procuring your own miscarriage? Why would anyone give themselves an illegal “backyard” abortion when abortions are legally available in this country?
However, when police told me what was being alleged, and the normalcy of the couple involved, I was bewildered.
I called our resident expert on medical abortions, James Cook University’s Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Caroline de Costa, as it was she who changed the landscape for women in Australia through her tireless fight to lift the ban on RU486 and give us the same access as women in other countries to safe non-invasive drug-induced abortions.
She said it was the first case of a woman being charged under the laws that she had heard of in decades.
The case centres on the allegation that Tegan and Sergie did not involve a doctor in their decisionmaking thereby making what they did illegal.
The young couple’s plight has sparked widespread public debate. My story on April 17 breaking the details of this landmark case, as well as Dr de Costa’s comments, inspired countless hits and comments on our website that day, protests by pro-choice activists and heated national debate across every possible forum.
Drug-induced medical abortions were suspended by Queensland obstetricians and new laws were hastily drafted in Parliament to protect doctors suddenly fearful that they too risked prosecution for performing abortions involving new drugs such as RU486 and Misoprostol.
And the story shows no signs of fading.
Heat is being put on Premier Anna Bligh, who is on record as being in favour of decriminalising abortion, to follow Victoria’s lead and toss abortion out of Queensland’s criminal code.
The trial, when it comes up within the next year, will most surely refocus attention on the issue.
Regardless of which way the verdict goes, the Government will be under intense pressure to act.
This furore is unlikely to go away without a resolution.
This story also appeared in the Cairns Weekend Post on September 26
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