Australia: Doctors seek ethical protection under proposed legalized abortion regime

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July 8 2016
by Amy Remeikis

Doctors at one of Queensland's leading obstetrics and gynaecology clinics have requested medical practitioners be given the right to refuse to perform abortions, or even refer patients for the procedure, for reasons of conscience, in the event the state decriminalises abortion.

Independent MP Rob Pyne's private member's bill, calling for the procedure to be removed from the state's criminal code, has sparked furious debate within the halls of parliament and drawn more than 120 submissions to the committee inquiry into the bill.

Among the submissions, which are overwhelming against the bill and include concerns linking abortion to depression, the Holocaust and the "ultimate [act of] domestic violence", members of the state's medical fraternity have also weighed in.

Seven doctors from the Greenslopes Obstetrics and Gynaecology clinic, based at the Ramsey Health-owned Greenslopes Private Hospital have requested medical professionals be given legislative protections to refuse to perform the procedure if the bill secures the necessary votes to succeed.

"...We request that the Committee also make recommendations with respect to any future legislation concerning abortion law that this legislation includes provisions for medical practitioners who, for reasons of conscience on the basis of religions, moral or ethical grounds, neither wish to perform nor refer for termination of pregnancy to be exempt form the legal obligation to do so," the submission reads.

"Given that even under the current legislative framework there is minimal if any difficulty in women accessing abortion services, we do not think the above provision would provide any significant impediment to women accessing these services if they wish to do so.
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"We would respectfully request that due consideration be given to the effects that legislation directing a medical practitioner to act against their conscience would have on that practitioner from a psychological standpoint.

"We would respectfully request that the Committee consider that as freedom of conscience is one of the fundamental privileges afforded by western democracy, and indeed will be exercised by members of the Queensland Parliament in voting on this legislation, that the same privilege be afforded to medical practitioners and others who will in the end be working out the practical consequences of any legislative change."

Abortion has been illegal in Queensland since 1899, with section 282 of the Criminal Code providing the defence that the procedure may be carried out for the 'preservation of the mother's life', which has been interpreted to mean serious danger to the woman's life, physical or mental health, if the pregnancy was to proceed.

While provisions have been added to the legislation to protect medical professionals who carry out the procedure, either through chemical or surgical means, there is nothing to protect the woman.

This has led to concerns Queensland women were being forced interstate where the procedure is legal, and may prevent women from feeling like they can access further help, including counselling.

Many of the submissions also erroneously concluded the lack of a gestational limit attached to the bill means Queensland would allow abortions up to the time of birth. In introducing the bill, Mr Pyne said he wanted any gestational limit to be considered after advice from experts, as he wanted the decriminalisation to be the central discussion.

Public hearings to discuss the legislation will be held across the state in the coming months, with the committee due to report back to Parliament with its findings and recommendations by 26 August.

Both major parties have allowed their MPs a conscience vote on the issue.

Abortion law around the nation*

Queensland & New South Wales: Abortion a crime for women and doctors. Legal when doctor believes a woman's physical and/or mental health is in serious danger. In NSW social, economic and medical factors maybe taken into account.
Australian Capital Territory: Legal, must be provided by medical doctor.
Victoria: Legal to 24 weeks. Legal post-24 weeks with two doctors' approval.
South Australia: Legal if two doctors agree that a woman's physical and/or mental health endangered by pregnancy, or for serious foetal abnormality. Unlawful abortion a crime.
Tasmania: Legal to 16 weeks on request, and after that point with the approval of two doctors.
Western Australia: Legal up to 20 weeks, some restrictions particularly for under 16s. Very restricted after 20 weeks.
Northern Territory: Legal to 14 weeks if 2 doctors agree that woman's physical and/or mental health endangered by pregnancy, or for serious foetal abnormality. Up to 23 weeks in an emergency.

*source – Children by Choice

Article source: Brisbane Times