Conscientious objection limits abortion access in Victoria, study finds

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Though Australia's Victoria state requires doctors with conscientious objection to abortion to refer women to another provider, a study published Thursday found that some doctors are noncompliant, "with adverse effects on access to care for some women."

"Conscientious objection to abortion, the law and its implementation in Victoria, Australia: perspectives of abortion service providers", by Louise Keogh, was published Jan. 31 in BMC Medical Ethics.

Victoria's Abortion Law Reform Act 2008 allowed conscientious objection to direct participation in abortion, but mandated that conscientious objectors refer their patient to a non-objecting practitioner for treatment and advice.

The referral requirement, Section 8, is opposed by some, who argue that "it compromises practitioners' religious or moral stance on abortion by compelling those with a CO to be complicit in allowing access to abortion through the act of referral," and there have been calls for its repeal.

Keogh wrote that despite the 2008 law abortion access "remains restricted in practice, particularly in rural areas."

Her study aimed "to explore health professionals' understandings of the inclusion of Section 8 in the Abortion Law Reform Act, as well as their perceptions of how Section 8 has been implemented in the Victorian health system and its impact on care."

The study was conducted through 19 interviews with individuals who are either directly involved in abortion provision, or provide abortion access counselling, or are involved in policy or advocacy related to abortion access.

"All nineteen participants were able to relate specific stories about doctors subverting, misusing or directly contravening the law," Keogh stated.

The Guardian reported that Keogh worked with Family Planning Victoria, the Royal Women's Hospital, and Women's Health Victoria in conducting the interviews.

In addition to doctors, participants reported that conscientious objection has been invoked by telephone staff in government services, pharmacists, and Catholic hospitals.

Keogh maintained that the referral requirement "is designed to allow for the moral integrity of the doctor, but only so far as this can be maintained while not causing harm to patients."

In 2013, Dr. Mark Hobart, a Catholic, was disciplined for refusing to refer a couple who sought the sex-based abortion of their unborn daughter.

"I refused to refer the patient because there was no medical reason to do it and it offended my moral conscience," Hobart told Nine News Australia.

"It's very wrong, I don't know any doctor in Victoria that would be willing to refer a woman that wanted to have an abortion just because of gender at 19 weeks."

He said the investigation shows that the state's abortion law "stops doctors from using their conscience whether it is appropriate or not."

The Medical Board of Victoria began an investigation after board members complained that the incident called into question his professional conduct.

Neither the woman nor her husband filed a complaint against him, the Daily Mail reports.

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Victorian law also bars any protest within 150 meters (nearly 500 feet) of a clinic or hospital where abortions are procured.

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