Prime Minister Scott Morrison has introduced the religious discrimination bill in parliament, arguing that “faith and freedom are inseparable”.
“We have to veer away from the artificial, phoney conflicts, boycotts, controversies and cancelling created by anonymous and cowardly bots, bigots and bullies,” he said.
The bill, while watered down considerably from its first draft, presents a new problem: how it will impact women seeking health services.
Experts have warned the lack of clarity in the bill could impact safe access zones around abortion clinics and allow doctors, nurses and pharmacists to make statements stigmatising women or members of the LGBTQI+ community.
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Much of the bill is still muddy. This morning, assistant attorney-general Amanda Stoker said whether schools could fire gay teachers depends on “what the school is prepared to be upfront with the community about now” — meaning if homophobia was embedded in their faith, they likely could.
Stigmatising comments could deter women
Access to abortion across Australia is not equal. Many in regional and rural areas have to drive hours for termination services, with many surgical abortion clinics shutting their doors amid a health services crisis.
In religious communities, doctors have said they fear their career would be jeopardised by providing abortions, with religious hospitals not willing to hire them.
This means many women already have to travel hours to access termination services. Just 17.4% of women residing in country South Australia had their termination in a country hospital — with the rest travelling to cities.
Bonney Corbin, head of policy at Marie Stopes Australia, told Crikey the new bill makes things even more concerning. While many hospitals and health service providers have a code of conduct about providing respectful services, the bill would allow professionals to make religious statements that may stigmatise a person.
“People accessing sexual reproductive health products might not be protected if the person they’re receiving services from is making damaging remarks,” she said.
“This could include things like, ‘contraception shouldn’t be used after marriage,’ ‘abortion is a sin,’ or ‘HIV is a punishment from God.’”
While many workplaces wouldn’t tolerate this sort of behaviour, it’s up to the patient to lodge a complaint, and whether an employer would be able to discipline an employee — especially if the organisation doesn’t have a clear code of conduct — is unclear.
“Even if that patient could still access services, if they feel stigmatised or shamed it could influence how they feel about themselves or coerce the outcome,” she said.
Religious doctors could dictate to women how to live their lives
Professor and Head of Health Care Management in the Flinders University School of Medicine Judith Dwyer told Crikey the bill opens the floor for medical doctors to dictate how they believe women should live their lives.
“It is clearly the intention of the bill that health professionals who hold religion-based views about how women should live their lives will be free and protected to express their views to patients regardless of the harms that will readily be caused,” she said.
She is particularly concerned about victims of sexual violence.
“It’s a burden that people needing health services shouldn’t face,” she said.
What about safe access zones?
Corbin said it’s unclear how the new bill will impact safe access zones — a 150-metre radius around abortion clinics that stops protestors or picketers from harassing those seeking services, legislated by states and territories.
Crikey understands the bill won’t allow picketers to break the law and protesting abortions within that safe access zone will still be banned.
But Corbin said it may take a test case. The bill overrides several state and territory laws and, while it says a statement of belief doesn’t include things that a reasonable person would consider would threaten, intimidate, harass or vilify a person or group, she is concerned silent prayers or vigils may be permitted.
Attorney-General Michaelia Cash didn’t respond to Crikey’s request for comment by deadline.