Open Letter to demand justice for the deaths of 28 WA babies - Dr Joanna Howe

Open Letter to demand justice for the deaths of 28 WA babies

Under current Western Australian law, the coroner is required to investigate instances of babies being born alive after an abortion. For 28 West Australian newborns, their cases  have not received coronial investigation, with some cases neglected for 55 months.

This year the Western Australian parliament passed radical new legislation permitting abortion-up-to-birth. This now removes the requirement for coroners to report the deaths of newborn children who survive abortions.

As the most senior member of the West Australian judiciary, we are writing to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in Western Australia, Peter Quinlan, to urgently require coronial investigations into the 28 newborns left to die whose cases have been buried through inaction by the Coroner. It is a dereliction of duty and the Coroner must be held accountable before it’s too late.

Now is the time to stand up for our youngest Australians and make your views known to Chief Justice Peter Quinlan. We must hold the WA Coroner  accountable for her failure to investigate. Justice delayed, is justice denied.

This is our last chance before the laws change.

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Dear Chief-Justice Quinlan

I am writing to you ask for your urgent intervention regarding the State Coroner’s failure to investigate the deaths of 28 West Australian newborns. These babies survived an abortion and are reportable deaths for the purposes of the Coroners Act 1996.[1]

At least one of these cases has been languishing for over four years,[2] despite the State Coroner’s commitment that “when the date of that report is more than 12 months old, that case enters into backlog and becomes a priority”.[3]

Although the recent passage of the Act 2023 removes the Coroner’s power to investigate future deaths of West Australian newborns who survive an abortion and subsequently die, this law has not yet been proclaimed and more importantly, does not apply retrospectively to these 28 cases.

Notably, Coroner Greg Cavanagh noted the important role of the Coroner in investigating cases such as these:

The public have a right to be informed and take part in any debate. The coronial process is the means by which they are informed. This is why it is important that these kind of deaths be reported to the Coroner.[4]

The efficacious pursuit of justice has undoubtedly been denied in these 28 cases.

A failure to investigate these cases expeditiously is a serious matter and represents both a miscarriage of justice for these newborns and a dereliction of the Coroner’s duty to investigate reportable deaths.

We urge your urgent intervention to ensure the prioritisation of this matter.

Yours sincerely


Professor Joanna Howe

DPhil in Law (Oxon), M.Studies in Legal Research (Oxon), B.Law (First Class Honours) (Sydney), B.Economics (Social Sciences) (Sydney)


[1] Standing Committee on Estimates and Financial Operations, 2022-23 Annual Reports, Answers to Supplementary Questions, Supplementary Question No.A1.

[2] One case has been with the State Coroner for 55 months: Legislative Council, Question Without Notice, Tuesday 28 November 2023.

[3] Office of the State Coroner, Annual Report 2020-2021, p 6.

[4] Inquest into the death of Jessica Jane [2000] NTMC 37, para 35.