By Anthony Barich
The peak body representing Catholic hospitals will fight for the conscience rights of physicians after the Abortion Law Reform Bill passed through Victoria’s Upper House on October 10.
Catholic Health Australia, whose Victorian hospitals account for a third of births in the State, asked Victoria’s Parliament to give Catholic hospitals an exemption from Clause 8 that requires physicians to refer a patient seeking an abortion onto another who has no conscientious objection.
Martin Laverty, chief executive of CHA, which operates 75 hospitals and 550 aged care providers around Australia including St John of God hospitals and Mercy Care in WA, said that as Victoria’s Legislative Council ignored this request – though some MPs agreed – CHA is currently reviewing its operations under legal advice so Catholic hospitals can still operate under Catholic principles.
“We will not walk away from our Catholic convictions, and we will seek to challenge this law if that need becomes apparent. We support and will defend the right of each and every health practitioner working in each of our hospitals to provide healthcare in fulfilment of the code of Catholic ethical standards,” he said.
“We hope it doesn’t come to that,” he told it last week, “but Catholic hospitals that have operated for over 175 years harmoniously and without incident should be able to operate within their own environments respecting the foundational principles.”
He said the Bill’s approval marks the end of centuries of religious tolerance, without a case to do so, despite the fact that Catholic hospitals provide 9500 hospital beds around Australia and 15 per cent of the nation’s healthcare services.
“This sends a signal to all groups that you’re no longer entitled to individual’s thoughts and principles on which you’ve been founded,” he said.
Mr Laverty said the law is vague and unworkable, echoing the comments during the debate of Fr Frank Brennan SJ, professor of law in the Institute of Legal Studies at the Australian Catholic University and professor of human rights and social justice at the University of Notre Dame Australia.
Fr Brennan said on the Jesuits’ website eurekastreet.comau that Clause 8 is completely unworkable, “unless of course each medical practitioner is to be armed with a comprehensive listing of the views of all other practitioners as to what circumstances and when they would in good conscience contemplate performing an abortion”.
The CHA warned that the Abortion Law Reform Bill violates the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 in forcing medical professionals to act against their conscience.
Speaking from Rome, where he was appointed by Benedict XVI as a president in the Synod of Bishops on the Bible, Sydney Cardinal George Pell called the Bill’s refusal to grant conscience rights of physicians “tyranny”. In a message relayed through his Auxiliary Bishop Julian Porteous on October 9, Cardinal Pell said that the government should offer women in crisis pregnancies “more than simply an increasing number of ever more accessible ways in which their unborn children can be killed.”
“The rights of freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief are fundamental. The ability to exercise conscientious objection is a keystone of democracy. All of us should have the right to hold a belief and not be compelled by the state to act contrary to that conviction,” he said.
“It is the difference between the free society and the one subject to tyranny. That conscientious objection is a fundamental human right is expressly recognised in similar legislation in various jurisdictions both overseas, as in the UK and New Zealand, and also domestically.”
Young Victorians For Life, a network of youth spread on the social networking site facebook, has also vowed to continue the fight for the culture of life.
Calling October 10 “the blackest day in the history of Victoria”, a statement on the group’s facebook page said: “We mourn for the babies, for their mothers and fathers and for a Victoria now fully immersed into a culture of death.
“The passing of this Bill, however, will not change our strong passion to stand up for life. Standing together with all pro-life organisations around Australia, Young Victorians for Life are committed to bringing Victoria back to a culture of life.”
Abortion remains in the Criminal Code in New South Wales and in Queensland, and some restrictions remain in South Australia.
In what was considered the most liberal abortion laws in Australia, 1998 legislation ensured it is legal in WA up to 20 weeks of pregnancy if one of four grounds is satisfied, but the first of these essentially allows abortion ‘on request’.