Doctors’ right to opt out of procedures because of religion extended under new laws

Doctors and nurses would be able to refuse to perform health services on religious grounds under new laws. Source: Getty

The Human Rights Law Centre is concerned the government’s religious discrimination bill allows doctors to “abandon” patients seeking a termination.

Doctors and nurses will be able to refuse to perform medical procedures such as terminations or gender reassignment surgery because of religious beliefs under new proposed federal laws.

Attorney-General Christian Porter unveiled the Religious Discrimination Bill on Thursday which potentially enshrines, for the first time, health practitioners’ right to make conscientious objections, on a federal level.

While some state-based legislation on terminations deal with conscientious objections, the federal law would prevent hospitals from requiring its employees to provide any service that conflicts with their religious belief, such as prescribing contraception.

Discrimination law expert at Melbourne University Liam Elphick said the move had taken many people by surprise.

“If a hospital requires all of its doctors to perform, for instance, procedures relating to transgender surgeries or to abortions and a doctor wants to opt-out of that and they’re not allowed to then that would be considered unlawful discrimination under the bill," he said.

“That is quite a drastic change in discrimination law in that area.”

The Human Rights Law Centre is concerned the “unorthodox provisions” would make it unlawful for health services to enforce rules that require doctors with a conscientious objection to abortion to refer patients to another service.

“The bill will undermine women’s reproductive health. In some jurisdictions, like South Australia and Western Australia, it will allow doctors to abandon their patients,” senior lawyer Adrianne Walters said.

Attorney-General Christian Porter unveiled the laws at The Great Synagogue on Thursday.
Attorney-General Christian Porter unveiled the laws at The Great Synagogue on Thursday.

Ms Walters said it was now crucial the proposed NSW legislation to decriminalise abortion include strong provisions on referrals.

“Without them, doctors who object will be able to obstruct vulnerable women by refusing to tell them where they can go to get the healthcare they need," she said. 

However, other health law experts said the federal legislation would not override state and territory laws.  

Ethics researcher Xavier Symons at Notre Dame University said the laws would provide more certainty to health practitioners and authorities.

"This is the first piece of legislation that makes a very definitive statement on the rights of health care practitioners to refuse to provide morally controversial health care services,” he told SBS News.

General Election - National Health Service
Hospitals will not be able to set rules that restrict employees from conscientiously objecting to providing the health service.

“Particularly with respect to direct participation in medical procedures I think practitioners should have a broad scope to opt-out of procedures that conflict with their deeply held religious or moral beliefs.”

The only exception is if refusing to provide the service would impede someone’s access to a service, particularly in rural areas.

“They can’t weaponise their right to conscientious objections and use that as a way to restrict access to a service that is legal… but I do think they should have a fundamental right to opt-out without sanction by their employer," he said.

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