Address ‘institutional conscientious objection’ as part of abortion reforms, RSA tells WA govt

Si Gladman / 23 December 2022

The Rationalist Society of Australia has urged the West Australian government to stop funding religious hospitals that have gynaecological, obstetrics or neonatal services but refuse to provide medical and surgical abortions.

In a submission to the Department of Health’s public consultation for the proposed reforms to abortion laws, the RSA said taxpayers’ money should not go towards funding religious hospitals that apply an ‘institutional conscientious objection’ to policy areas such as abortion and contraception.

Read the full submission

The McGowan government has embarked on a reform process to remove unnecessary barriers to care and to align Western Australia’s abortion laws with other states and territories. The consultation period closed on Saturday 17 December.

The RSA recommended that the government enact a version of Fiona Patten’s Health Legislation Amendment (Conscientious Objection) Bill 2022 – put forward in Victoria earlier this year – and require that any state-funded hospital providing gynaecological, obstetrics or neonatal services provide advice and services for medical and surgical abortion.

The government’s Discussion Paper recognised that Western Australia’s current abortion legislation did not provide “clear guidance to practitioners, services and patients on how conscientious objections should be managed, including in the case of a medical emergency”. It also said that while no person, hospital, health institution, other institution or service was under a duty to participate in the performance of any abortion, there was “no requirement on the person or service to disclose such objections”.

Under options presented for reform, the Discussion Paper only addressed conscientious objection in regards to individual practitioners, with a proposal to require them to provide “clear and unambiguous directions to refer the patient to another health practitioner who is willing and able to provide abortion care”. The RSA supports this proposed ‘declare and refer’ reform.

However, the RSA’s submission urged the government to go further, recommending reform that would address the problem of publicly funded religious hospitals utilising the notion of ‘institutional conscientious objection’ to prevent lawful abortion services.

“If the West Australian government continues to allow publicly funded religious hospitals to operate in this way, it would, in essence, continue to privilege narrow religious interests above the well-being of women and the wider community. This should not be happening in 21st-century Australia,” the submission said.

“While we support the right of individual medical practitioners to exercise a conscientious objection and, therefore, not directly take part in providing abortion or contraception services, we believe taxpayers’ money should not go towards funding religious hospitals that apply an ‘institutional conscientious objection’ to these policy areas.”

The submission argued that current laws not requiring institutions and individuals with conscientious objections to disclose their objections upfront and refer patients to another provider made matters worse for many women in accessing time-critical abortion services. As the government’s Discussion Paper noted, women in Western Australia “may need to visit several health practitioners before obtaining a referral for abortion care”, with those in regional and remote areas especially affected. 

The submission pointed out that religious clerics who claim to speak for their communities are out of touch with their own flocks on many social issues, including abortion. It cited social researcher Neil Francis’ work in Religiosity in Australia (Part 1): Personal faith according to the numbers, which shows that the vast majority of Australians, including religious people, overwhelmingly support women having readily available access to abortion services.

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Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at sigladman@rationalist.com.au or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman

Photo by Manny Becerra on Unsplash.

All the more reason.