VICTORIA: by Gabrielle WalshNews Weekly
Liberal Party votes to restore GP's conscience rights
, December 21, 2013
The state council of Victoria’s Liberal Party has voted overwhelmingly in favour of overturning a controversial provision in the state’s abortion laws which forbids doctors from exercising their right of conscientious objection to abortion.
Under Section 8 of Victoria’s Abortion Law Reform Act 2008, a doctor can be deregistered for declining to refer a woman seeking a pregnancy termination to an abortionist.
The Australian Medical Board has recently been investigating a pro-life GP, Dr Mark Hobart, who refused to refer a Melbourne couple to an abortionist. They sought to abort their girl at 19 weeks, because they had wanted a boy.
The board claimed that it has been forced to bring its action against Dr Hobart, because Section 8 overrides the Medical Code of Ethics which operates everywhere else in Australia.
Dr Hobart has protested in his defence that he doesn’t know any doctor who would be prepared to perform a gender-selective abortion. Furthermore, he has received overwhelming support from his medical colleagues. A recent article in Medical Observer (November 11, 2013) quoted an online poll which found that 82 per cent of doctors agreed with Dr Hobart’s decision not to provide a medical referral to the Melbourne couple.
A young perioperative nurse, Elizabeth Foley, moved a motion, calling for the overturning of Section 8, at the Liberal Party state council held in the Victorian seaside town of Lorne on the weekend of November 30/December 1.
The motion declared: “That this State Council call on the Victorian Parliament to remove Section 8 of the Abortion Law Reform Act 2008 (Vic) from the Act in order to restore freedom of conscience.”
Mrs Foley, a delegate from the Liberal Party’s Garfield-Bunyip branch in Victoria’s Gippsland, spoke of her commitment to providing quality care for her patients. However, she emphasised that she was not intending to discuss her job or the polarising issue of abortion, but rather the fundamental right to freedom of conscience.
She told the conference: “I am here to advocate for myself and represent health professionals who share my concern about the denial of this fundamental human right. Section 8 of the abortion law denies me, and other health professionals, including doctors and pharmacists, the right to freedom of conscience. Essentially, we are denied the right to follow our conscience and not to participate in an abortion.”
Section 8, in compelling a “registered health practitioner” (doctor or nurse) to perform or assist in an abortion, deprives these health practitioners of both the right to their personal beliefs and the right to exercise their conscience.
The Liberal Party state council delegates were told that this section contravenes Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which stipulates, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to… manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”. The section also contravenes Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Moreover, Section 8 also contravenes the codes of medical ethics of the Australian Medical Association (AMA), the Medical Board of Australia and the World Medical Association. Two days before the Victorian Liberal Party’s state council, the federal AMA issued its position statement on conscientious objection. In this statement, it made clear that it did not support section 8 of Victoria’s abortion law, declaring that a doctor should be free to refuse “to provide or participate in certain medical treatments or procedures that conflict with his or her own personal beliefs”. “Participation” is here defined to include “indirect actions such as referring the patient to another doctor who will provide the service”.
The AMA position statement specifically states that “a doctor with a conscientious objection should not have to refer to another doctor who will provide the service”. The statement goes on to say that “a doctor (or nurse) who has a conscientious objection should not be treated unfairly or be discriminated against”.
This debate is not about abortion or access to terminations. Access to terminations would not be affected by an amendment to remove section 8. The debate is purely about conscience. Even Melbourne’s left-leaning The Age newspaper, in supporting the removal of section 8, recognises this (The Age editorial, November 9, 2013).
Community support is gathering across Victoria for an amendment of Section 8, as indicated by a petition with 4,300 signatures, which was recently tabled in the state parliament. Nearly 300 medical practitioners in Victoria have also supported the proposed amendment through an online petition.
It is paradoxical that, were there to be a parliamentary debate on his issue, politicians would have the right to exercise a conscience vote. This is in contrast to health professionals, doctors, nurses and pharmacists in Victoria who, since 2008, have been denied their right to exercise their conscience.
Gabrielle Walsh is Victorian state president of the National Civic Council.