Problems with conscientious objection
Pro-choice campaigners in the Australian state of Victoria have emerged triumphant after the upper house of the state parliament voted to decriminalise abortion and to allow unrestricted abortion up to 24 weeks. However as BioEdge went to press, debate was continuing over some of the more contentious features of the bill, including the right of conscientiuos objection. As it stands, the bill requires a doctor who objects to abortion to refer to a doctor who doesn’t. If there is an emergency, he is required to perform the abortion himself. Nurses who object will find themselves in even more difficult position, as they are required to assist in an “emergency”.
A few days before the vote, bioethicist Nicholas Tonti-Filippini criticised the bill in a seminar organised by the Australian Catholic University. He pointed out that its rejection of conscientious objection is based upon a new model of the doctor-patient relationship. “in which the fiduciary relationship within the Hippocratic tradition has been replaced by a free market model in which the buyer must beware.”
He also claimed that, in practice, objecting doctors would have to refer women to abortion clinics, since they could not be certain, as required by the bill, that other doctors would have no objection at all to abortion.
Objecting family doctors, he said, will, if the bill is passed, have to retire from medicine or face deregistration. The bill could be challenged in the High Court of Australia but medical indemnity insurers will not pay the legal bills of a doctor who has deliberately breached the law. Nor is there any certainty that the High Court will uphold the right to conscientious objection to abortion.
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