What would Jesus do … if he was the CEO of a Catholic hospital confronted with the proposed new abortion laws currently before the Victorian Parliament?

According to Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart, he might be obliged to close the hospital’s emergency and maternity departments, if the new laws are passed by the Victorian upper house.

As one in three Victorian babies is born in a Catholic hospital, this would clearly place an unmanageable burden on the state’s other maternity services.

The Archbishop’s comments may be unnecessarily alarmist, given that the Government argues that the new laws will not require Catholic hospitals to perform abortions and the Catholic health sector has not supported the Archbishop’s threats of mass closures.

However, they do highlight one of the underlying tensions within Australia’s complex health system.

The Catholic health sector is the largest non-government provider of health and community services. It straddles the public and private health sectors and includes 75 hospitals nationally (both public and private) aged care homes, hospices and community health services.

It provides a substantial amount of essential but often not profitable (largely because they are under-funded by governments) health services, such as oncology, aged care and palliative care.

The Government relies on the Catholic health sector’s commitment to providing these services and Catholic hospitals in turn rely significantly on public sources of funding (for example via Medicare, the private health insurance rebate and the Medicare safety-net).

Consumers benefit from this symbiotic relationship through receiving increased access to services which the public and “for profit” sectors are often reluctant to provide. Consumers (particularly those from disadvantaged groups) also benefit from the strong advocacy role undertaken by the Catholic health sector, in particular in relation to complex health and social problems, such as alcohol and drug addiction.

Those inclined to dismiss Catholic health services as socially conservative anachronisms should remind themselves that it was a group of Catholic nuns who in the 1990s fought the NSW government to establish the nation’s first injectable heroin trial.

Of course the benefits provided by the Catholic health sector come hand-in-hand with values not shared by the majority of the Australian population, such as opposition to reproductive health services like abortion and IVF. This creates a challenge for a health system which needs to balance respect for the religious and ethical beliefs of health care providers with the needs of consumers who do not share these views.

It is the role of Government to ensure that no woman is denied access to the full range of reproductive health care options. This requires ensuring that women are given a choice of health care provider and made aware of the limited services provided by some individuals and institutions.

Despite the difficulties this may present to state health departments in the specific area of reproductive health services, it would be hard to argue that overall Australian consumers would be better off without the contribution of the Catholic health sector to the health system.

In balancing the rights of women with the views of the Catholic health sector on the proposed abortion laws, let’s not throw the babies out with the Holy Water.

Jennifer Doggett is a health policy analyst and Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development

Peter Fray

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