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Victoria

Oct 28, 2009

Can it ever be ethical to let women die?

So refusing an abortion should be a doctor's right, even if that refusal may see a woman die? asks Leslie Cannold. Religious freedom is important, but it shouldn't trump other human rights.

A disturbing trend is emerging in the writings of those opposed to legal abortion. Since the passage of Victoria’s Law Reform Act last year, they have been campaigning against the limits the new law imposes on the rights of healthcare professionals to conscientiously object to involvement in abortion.

From Liberal Senator Julian McGauran’s most recent contribution in Quadrant, to previous pieces by Father Frank Brennan (chair of the National Human Rights Consultation), Martin Laverty (CEO of Catholic Health Australia) and Doctor’s in Conscience’s Eamonn Mathieson, opponents of legal abortion argue that rights of medical professionals and Catholic health institutions to refuse care to women seeking abortions is absolute. Even where such denial could see a woman die, they maintain that refusing to provide an abortion is the right, and their right, to do.

There is much that is offensive, even shocking, about the absolutist nature of such assertions. However important is religious freedom, it does not trump other rights. However important medical professionals are, their rights are no weightier than those held by others — certainly not their patients to whom they owe a duty of care. In fact, even if religious and conscience rights were trumping, there’s still arguments about whose religion or conscience — the doctor’s or the woman’s — should prevail when conflicts arise over abortion care.

Where the rights of women seeking abortions are taken seriously (and these include their right to follow the dictates of their conscience, to informed decision making about their health, to timely medical care and to life), the absolutist approach seems inadequate at best. At worst, it seems to disregard the pregnant woman’s basic humanity.

Perhaps this fact is why most of those arguing for a change to Victoria’s conscience clause rarely mention women by name. They don’t directly say, “we don’t care if women die, doctors conscience rights are supreme”.

Rather they condemn the new law’s “coercion” of individual health workers and healthcare organisations to act contrary to their consciences by requiring “participation in abortion through … direct assistance.” They declaim with high dugeon the “extraordinary attempt by pro-abortion legislators” to threaten the livelihoods health practitioners who “are unwilling to … perform an abortion,” but never mention that the only compulsion to provide abortion in the Victorian legislation is in an emergency where it is necessary to preserve a woman’s life.

The conscience clause in Victoria’s new abortion law requires just two things from doctor’s wanting to be excused from what the Victorian Law Reform Commission described as the “general expectation that practitioners will provide medical services”.

The first is that they don’t exercise this freedom at the cost of a woman’s life. The second is that they ensure their refusal to provide timely medical care doesn’t translate into her inability to get timely medical care by providing an effective referral.

For those willing to mention women by name, this seems the least they can do. After all, women have rights, too.

Dr Leslie Cannold is a medical ethicist and president of Pro Choice Victoria, a grass-roots organisation that supported the removal of abortion from Victoria’s criminal code.

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94 thoughts on “Can it ever be ethical to let women die?

  1. SusieQ

    Good on you Leslie!!!!

    Gosh, I’m so tired of religious do-gooders (mostly men too it seems in this case…….) trying to impose their beliefs and ideas on the rest of us – as Leslie points out, there is a conscience clause in the legislation – so get over it!

  2. Martin Shanahan

    Oh dearie me Leslie – yesterday you insisted that most children are killed in utero when it is found that they – the child that is not the mother – have some awful incurable disease – one that is that might make the child’s life difficult once born yet has no impact on the mother at all, other than requiring care to be given. The disease might be for example Downs – terrible, can’t have one of them around, not perfect.

    Today you assert egregiously that the anti-abortion forces are all set to watch mothers die – oh really Leslie – this is most like the canard of backyard abortions and coat hangers. Get real will you – check the Medicare stats again and tell us that there are really that many sick women who are pregnant – psychologically disturbed if you like as required in South Australia. There aren’t – the numbers are all out of whack.

    We kill more unborn children every year – and accept this as a community – than die of legitimate disease.

    You Leslie are not talking medicine, you are talking about false perceptions of quality of life.

    Just ask yourself – where have all the children gone who used be put up for adoption. And that is not a dirty word. And adoption is not a death sentence as your much loved abortion always is.

    Best wishes,

    Martin

  3. Liz45

    Yes Leslie, good on you! This is so tedious, unjust and misogynist. There’s an ingrained dislike, hatred of women by some men, and too many of them are in positions of some power. I’ve had personal experience of the Catholic church’s destructive and inhumane treatment and attidues towards women.
    My first 2 children were born 11 months, 2 weeks and 6 days apart. I arrived home from hospital with my 2nd child in time for my first child’s 1st birthday. I loved them both dearly, wouldn’t be without them, but shouldn’t have had them so close together. I had morning sickness for 9 months. I sought the advice of 5 priests while pregnant the 2nd time, and got 5 different answers. I finally took charge of my own health, and told my doctor I wanted the pill – I took the script home with me.

    4 yrs later I had another child, which caused a severe prolapse of my bladder. (and this is the awful bit.) My urologist at that time was a Catholic. His wife had given birth to about 8 kids? He wouldn’t operate as he said it would ‘spoil my husband’s sex life’? No concern for mine, obviously. I wanted a tubal ligation also, as I’d been told it was dangerous to have any more children. Two years of absolute pain, constant bladder infections and misery went by, until once again, I took charge, made an appointment to see a gynaecologist and then asked for the referral. He agreed with diagnosis, was sympathetic and understanding, agreed to do the tubal ligation even though I was only 25 and it was done. I think I cried with relief and gratitude! I’d been accused of not liking children; what if one of my children died, or my husband; I hadn’t thought it through blah blah!

    Some time later, a conversation with my Mum revealed, that she’d thought I’d had a hysterectomy, which was apparently OK, but told me, that if I died in childbirth I’d go straight to heaven!!!!No mention of who’d mother my present children, let alone a new baby! Amazing! I told her it was my business and my decision, as it was my health and my family. Also, 3 kids were more than enough to provide for. That was about 38 yrs ago, but sadly, nothing much has changed. My sympathies are with the pregnant woman every time. I’ve not found one woman who’s decided to have a termination arrive at that decision without a lot of thought and heartache. If the Church wants to be helpful, instead of investing millions in property etc, they could spend more on providing facilities for children with disabilities, and respite for their parents. There could also be a paid program of community education re how difficult it is to look after a child with many difficulties and disabilities. Sadly, community attitudes can be cruel and thoughtless, but of course priests and other men without this struggle, never counter this.

    I think the Catholic Church should butt out of women’s lives. They don’t have a bloody clue about raising kids, having a relationship let alone being pregnant as well. Money isn’t a problem either, as priests seem to be able to fly around the world at will, and I haven’t heard of them being in danger of losing their homes due to the GFC etc?
    Their attitudes to contraception is criminal in my view. They should be charged with crimes against humanity for the trauma they cause women and their families, not to mention their disgraceful and lying attitude to condoms, particularly in impoverished countries. They’ve contributed to the horrific stats re HIV/Aids in Africa and other countries.

    When Fr Frank Brennan and Julian McGouran and their misogynist mates are pregnant for the first time, they’ll have the right to have their views aired, until then, they can undertake to stop all violence against women, and their current attitudes re women’s fertility is a major form of it. Of course, they’ve both offered to step up and care for these babies for the rest of their lives. What about the woman’s right to life? Women are an expendable commodity in the catholic church – always have been, and I don’t see any change happening soon!

  4. SusieQ

    Liz, what an amazing story – sadly not an uncommon one either I would think….

    Well said – lets see anyone argue with that!!!!

  5. Robert Davidson

    If institutions or medicos have the right to conscientiously object and not perform a duty, then perhaps our secular funding system should recognise their unique place in the system by cutting off public funding.

    Why should my taxes support anything but a system that cares for all?

  6. Heathdon McGregor

    Dear liz45

    Thank you for sharing your amazing tale. As a man I am as astounded how many of my fellow men need to interfere with a womans choice as I am with how many of my fellow heterosexuals have opinions on homosexuality. Until it concerns me (in that I am the father) I have no say. Even then I believe I am limited as it is not my body.

    I was once steadfast in my belief that life has a starting line called Birth. That was until a friend relayed to me that when he felt his child kick then he could not say his child was not alive. I dont know.

    Do any christians celebrate in May the inception of Christ? If they do i am unaware.

  7. EnergyPedant

    Liz I agree you were mistreated. However its not a legal matter of forcing a doctor to operate, its simply a case of you taking your medical business elsewhere. If your doctor is crap, insensitive, unhygienic, etc… then go to someone else. If they don’t believe in abortion, go to someone else.

    Back to the article. Leslie is caught up with the handful (if that) of cases where an emergency abortion is necessary. Put simply if you go to a doctor who doesn’t tell you your life is in danger then they should be de-registered. If they tell you but refuse to perform an abortion then go find a different doctor. Woman are capable thinking adults, not basket cases.

  8. Liz45

    Indeed! There’s a saying, that feminists aren’t born, they’re man-made! I agree with this. I was a quiet little mouse, brought up in the 1950’s where women were treated as girls – flighty, stupid, and second class citizens to the real people – men. The education of boys was more important than ours too. This was certainly true if you went to a Catholic school and had these attitudes reinforced at home. My parents had 9 kids, and I never doubted their love for me, but they were products of their upbringing too. I understood this more as I got older, but the Church has not moved very much in relation to women’s rights or issues pertaining to them or their rightful place in the world. The arrogance of these people is mindblowing.

    I agree with the views above re doctor’s funding etc. If they want to pick and choose their responsibilities, they shouldn’t be practicing medicine at all. It is contributory manslaughter to not treat a woman’s health with the same importance as men’s or kids or an embryo or foetus. Women are professional people as Leslie exhibits; we raise kids, hold down a job, run a home and hopefully have a love life. We’re competent intelligent people who even in our 20’s can make intelligent and reasonable decisions. I support any woman who wishes to make her own decisions about anything. I also don’t arrogantly pick and choose what I’ll support, depending on my personal views. Only when women are really empowered and recognised in this way will those dictators leave us alone.

    Can you imagine for example, a doctor telling a man with prostate cancer that he shouldn’t have surgery because he may become impotent, and this will deny his partner a sex life? At this stage of surgical prowess, and the ‘tricky’ position of the prostate, sadly this is reality for many men. It’s unthinkable isn’t it? But these people think it’s OK to put our lives at risk. Of course, any woman who truly loved him would want him alive as her first priority. Imagine the hue and cry if that reached the media – as indeed it should. But women, we’re in a different category aren’t we? These bigoted and unjust men(mostly) think our rights to health are secondary to their views. Thankfully, there are many men who agree and support us!

  9. John james

    Cannold, in a speech delivered to the Perinatologists meeting in Melbourne this week, acknowledged that abortion, up to the day before birth, was a “right”, and insisted that babies born alive after abortion ought not be resuscitated.
    This has never been about women dying, because with good obstetric care that doesn’t happen. This is about killing the innocent and helpless. Autonomy gone mad!
    A decent society looks for a healthy mother and child. That Cannold, and her sectarian mates, are prepared to sweep away any semblance of concern for the unborn, says much about their perverse notion of good medicine.

  10. Bogdanovist

    Look, there are plenty of religious loonies out there and Liz’s story in #3 is a terrifying example of the destruction that medieval superstitions can have on real peoples lives, BUT we shouldn’t assume that because some people who oppose abortion are ignorant maniacs with imaginary friends that therefore abortion must be a good thing.

    I’m a staunch atheist and someone who is relatively anti-abortion on ethical grounds. I reject the notion that this is a gender issue and find many pro-abortin arguements essentially empty attacks on religion and patriarchy. While I have nothing against attacking religion or the patriarchy, doing so doesn’t change the answer to the complex ethical questions surrounding abortion.

    If a doctor believes that abortion is the ending of a human life, then I would expect them to behave accordingly, regardless of why they have that view.

    In my view, abortion via essentially miscarriage inducing drugs early on is the most acceptable, and can be argued from an ethical viewpoint. Surgical abortion which first requires administering a lethal injection to a viable human life is in my view far less defensible.

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