Anti-abortion doctors challenge guidelines

By Claire Trevett

The main objection is understood to involve a new section in the guidelines covering the way doctors who object to abortion must deal with patients. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey
The main objection is understood to involve a new section in the guidelines covering the way doctors who object to abortion must deal with patients. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey

Anti-abortion doctors have gone to court to challenge new Medical Council guidelines on how physicians with personal objections to abortion must deal with patients.

One of the doctors is believed to be Mary English, a Wellington GP and wife of Deputy Prime Minister Bill English.

Dr English is a Catholic whose anti-abortion beliefs are widely known.

The doctors filed an application in the High Court last week for a judicial review of the guidelines, titled "Beliefs and Medical Practice".

The Medical Council is withholding the guidelines until the case is decided.

The doctors' lawyer, Harry Waalkens, QC, said proceedings for a judicial review had been filed, but would not comment on the grounds for the challenge until he could speak to his clients. He would not name any of the doctors.

Their main objection is understood to involve a new section in the guidelines covering the way doctors who object to abortion must deal with patients.

It requires them to tell patients having doubts about a pregnancy that abortion is one of the options.

The final version of the document is not available, but a draft version was issued in March.

A Medical Council spokesman said changes had been made since then, but he could not provide the final text because of the court action.

The statement was intended to guide medical practitioners, and tried to balance doctors' and patients' rights - including the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion - and the entitlement to care and treatment.

The Medical Council is legally responsible for setting standards and guidelines for medical practitioners, as well as dealing with registration and claims of professional misconduct.

The law already allows doctors to refuse to provide contraception or abortion services on grounds of conscience, although they must tell patients they can consult another physician.

The draft guidelines say that regardless of their personal beliefs, doctors must ensure a pregnant woman having doubts about her pregnancy is told abortion is among the options available to her, and is given information on it and the other options.

It is the first time the issue of personal beliefs and abortion has been addressed in Medical Council guidelines, and follows a similar move in Britain.

The guidelines also cover other areas where spiritual, cultural or religious beliefs could conflict with patients' rights.

They say doctors should set aside their own beliefs where necessary and that they must make the care of the patient their first concern.

The Health and Disability Commissioner and the Resident Doctors Association approved the new section in their submissions on the draft, saying it was helpful to include specific advice.

Under New Zealand law, abortions can be performed only if two certifying consultants agree certain grounds apply.

These include cases of incest, or if the mental or physical well-being of the mother or unborn child is at risk.

WHAT IT SAYS

CURRENT

* The Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act allows doctors to refuse on grounds of conscience to provide a service or give advice on contraception, sterilisation, or other reproductive health services. Doctors must tell the patient they can get the service or advice from another doctor or a family planning clinic.
* Medical Council "Good Medical Practice" guidelines: "Your personal beliefs should not affect your advice or treatment. If you feel your beliefs might affect the advice or treatment you provide, you must explain this to patients and tell them about their right to see another doctor. You must be satisfied that the patient has sufficient information to enable them to exercise that right."

PROPOSED MEDICAL COUNCIL GUIDELINE

"While the council recognises that you are entitled to hold your own beliefs, it remains your responsibility to ensure that a pregnant woman who comes to you for medical care and expresses doubt about continuing with the pregnancy is provided with or is offered access to objective information or assistance to enable her to make informed decisions on all available options for her pregnancy, including termination."

The text above is the March draft version, which may have since been changed.

- NZ Herald

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