July 15th 2000

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Articles from this issue:

Cover Story: Human Genome mapping milestone?

Editorial: Managing Australia’s interests in S.E. Asia

Canberra Observed: Defence: opportunity beckons for Howard Government

Families: The hollowing of the middle class continues

New South Wales: Follow Swedish model: drug forum told

Trade: Canberra capitulates without firing a salvo

Doctors suspended over 32 week abortion

Straws in the wind

Education: New Queensland syllabus attacked

Economics: UN to look at the Tobin Tax

Media: GST ads unchained media bias

Development: Amartya Sen: the return of humane economics

Comment: The politics of suicide

Law: Death penalty debate resurfaces in USA

United States: Rising tide leaves poor floundeirng

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Doctors suspended over 32 week abortion

by Anna Krohn

News Weekly, July 15, 2000
Three senior medical staff at Melbourne’s Royal Women’s Hospital have been suspended while the hospital management investigates their involvement in the induced delivery and death of a 32 week old foetus.

During a press conference, Professor Glenn Bowes, the hospital’s Medical Director, said that the case documentation was unclear on several points and had been referred to the State Coroner. According to Bowes, it is the first abortion case to be sent to the Coroner by the hospital.

In his statement, Professor Bowes said that in January this year, a “highly distressed” and possibly “suicidal” woman presented at the Royal Women’s, having been referred from private practice. Her baby had been diagnosed with congenital dwarfism and both she and her husband said they wanted an immediate abortion.

Dwarfism is a physical disability without mental impairment.

The woman was apparently assessed at the Royal Women’s by a psychiatrist, a geneticist and a obstetrician. Medical staff assessed the case as “exceptional” and one in which the mother’s life “was at grave risk”.

Hospital guidelines

Each year about 80 late-gestation pregnancies are terminated at the Royal Women’s Hospital in accordance with what Bowes calls “discretionary” hospital guidelines. The hospital management acted on this case when an anonymous medical staff member reported the issue to the hospital’s “adverse events panel”.

According to Professor Bowes, the hospital’s executive was concerned that the documentation of the abortion did not satisfy its own “discretionary” protocol. The records do not show how the baby actually died. “There is the possibility that the death of the foetus was induced prior to delivery,” he said.

The fact that the unborn child was so mature and that it was not suffering from a lethal disability seems also to have caused “substantive concern” in a hospital which has otherwise found room for “exceptional” later abortions.

As even the normally liberal Age noted, the line between abortion and ostensibly outlawed infanticide has become disturbingly thin.

Late abortions also bring into question how far the Victorian laws relating to abortion and child destruction can be stretched to accommodate parental rejection of disabled children.

The Menhennitt ruling of 1969 created a large window within the existing ban on “unlawful” abortions, allowing medical practitioners the “legal” right to perform abortions where they deemed the pregnancy presented a danger to the mother’s physical or mental health.

There is no “discretionary” excuse under Menhennitt for causing the death of a human being who, though disabled, is undeniably a child and who in other circumstances would be born alive with full medical support if born at 32 weeks.

The present case is also being used as a platform to promote the expansion of the abortion legislation to include what some argue is the “regrettable” inevitability of late term abortion.

It is argued by Associate Professor Julian Savulescu of the Murdoch Institute, that abortions such as this “are agonising and inescapable” and that the law in Victoria should be “clarified” so that late termination can be viewed as “a standard management option” for unacceptably disabled foetuses.

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