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.