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Totalitarian abortion law requires conscientious disobedience

  • 24 September 2008
The abortion debate has produced a stand-off in Victoria over church-state relations and freedom of conscience. It is time to seek a resolution which respects the long-held conscientious beliefs of some health providers within the context of the proposed state regime approving abortion on demand.

The lower house of the Victorian parliament has passed a bill which treats abortion of a foetus up to 24 weeks as an elective surgical procedure. There is no legal requirement ensuring a woman has had sufficient time and opportunity to make an informed and free choice to have an abortion. Any doctor can perform the procedure.

Even a viable child can be aborted post-24 weeks at the mother's request provided only that the doctor has received endorsement from a colleague that the killing of the child is appropriate having regard to 'all relevant medical circumstances and the woman's current and future physical, psychological and social circumstances' — whatever that means.

Usually, doctors considering the performance of an elective surgical procedure are free to decline to perform the procedure. Declining doctors asked to perform an abortion will be required by law to refer the patient to another doctor known not to have any conscientious objection to abortion.

Some doctors think abortion is almost always wrong; others think it is almost never wrong. Some hold the conscientious belief that the abortion of a viable foetus is the deliberate killing of a child. They think they will be asked to refer a patient to another doctor just for the purpose of killing a child. Such doctors would regard this as being legally required to cooperate in an act that they consider immoral.

The Victorian bill also proposes that doctors and nurses, regardless of their conscientious objections, be required to perform an abortion 'in an emergency where the abortion is necessary to preserve the life of the pregnant woman'.

One third of all births presently occur in Catholic hospitals. The Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, has said, 'Catholic hospitals will not perform abortions and will not provide referrals for the purpose of abortion. If this provision is passed it will be an outrageous attack on our service to the community and contrary to Catholic ethical codes. It will leave Catholic hospitals and doctors with a conscientious objection to abortion in a position where they will be acting contrary to the law if they act in accordance with