Pregnant 12-Year-Old Forced to Wait Weeks for Court to Approve Her Abortion

In Queensland, Australia, a pregnant preteen had to petition the Supreme Court for the right to terminate her pregnancy.

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Apr 28 2016, 5:05pm

Photo by Gillian van Niekerk / Stocksy

In Australia, a pregnant 12-year-old girl with a history of suicide attempts had to spend several weeks petitioning for the right to get a safe and legal abortion. Earlier this month, a Queensland Supreme Court judge granted her permission to get a medical abortion—but only after the child had seen a general practitioner, a social worker, two obstetricians, and a psychiatrist.

According to an April 20 ruling by Justice Duncan McMeekin, which was made publicly available on April 26, the girl, who is referred to as "Q," was nine weeks pregnant as of that date. The alleged father, who is "of a similar age to Q," was reportedly unaware of her pregnancy.

"There are strong grounds to believe that Q is at risk of suffering psychological harm, and serious harm, if the pregnancy is not terminated," Justice McMeekin wrote. "[T]here is good reason to think that she is at considerable risk of physical harm as well."

In Australia, abortion laws vary from state to state. In Queensland, the second-largest and third-most-populous state in the country, getting an abortion is forbidden and punishable by up to seven years in prison, with very narrow exceptions: Terminating a pregnancy is only legal in order to save a woman's life or to prevent serious harm to her physical or mental health. There is no exception for cases of rape, incest, or fatal fetal abnormality.

In many countries where abortion is banned save in cases of threat to the mother's health, the very act of proving that a threat is substantial is incredibly difficult. In Ireland, for instance, any woman who says being forced to carry a pregnancy to term will make her suicidal has to confer with three experts, all of whom must agree that she could take her own life if she's not allowed to access abortion care. Q's case is no exception to this rule—according to Justice McMeekin's ruling, the girl first sought medical assistance "about a month ago" and "maintained her view consistently throughout that the pregnancy should be terminated."

In an affidavit quoted in the ruling, Q said that she found the pregnancy "very stressful emotionally" and that she does not want to be a mother, nor does she think she's capable of raising a child. Earlier this year, according to testimonies from the preteen and her mother, Q "ran away from home, cut herself, and attempted suicide on two occasions." A psychiatrist who interviewed Q said that forcing her to continue the pregnancy would be likely to result in "an increased risk of resuming patterns of self harm and suicidal thoughts."

Caroline de Costa, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the James Cook University College of Medicine in Queensland, estimates that about fifty 12-year-olds seek an abortion per year in the region. "Any girl of 12 fulfills the criteria of her health/life being threatened by continuing the pregnancy," she explained over email, but she added that Q's case was likely complicated by the fact that "many Australian doctors, including OB/GYNs, don't want to be involved with abortion."

Justice McMeekin ruled that Q should be given medication abortion no later than April 23, and, if the drugs failed to take effect within 72 hours, that she should be allowed to undergo surgical abortion on or before April 27.

Still, many pro-choice advocates in the country are outraged that Q and her family had to face so many obstacles in accessing life-saving reproductive care. "It shouldn't take a court order to get health care in Australia," said the abortion advocacy group Reproductive Choice Australia in an online statement. "We hope this 12-year-old has a better future ahead of her and doesn't have to have her personal life exposed before the courts and media again."

"[This] is even more proof that the law needs to be changed—we need decriminalization," said de Costa. "If every 12-year-old has to go to the Supreme Court to get approval for an abortion, all other court business would have to cease."