Cherie Howie is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Abortion association alarmed by doctor's Pill refusal

Dr Joseph Lee of the Wairau Community Clinic in Blenheim refused to prescribe the Pill because a woman hadn't done her 'reproductive job'.Photo / The Blenheim Sun
Dr Joseph Lee of the Wairau Community Clinic in Blenheim refused to prescribe the Pill because a woman hadn't done her 'reproductive job'.Photo / The Blenheim Sun

A doctor's stance on refusing to prescribe birth control pills to a young woman because she had not performed her "reproductive job" has alarmed the Abortion Law Reform Association NZ, which has called on the Medical Council to clarify guidelines on conscientious objection.

Its comments follow a Herald on Sunday report in which Blenheim doctor Joseph Lee would not renew his 23-year-old patient Melissa Pont's pill prescription, instead lecturing her on a baby's right to live and on using the rhythm method - an unreliable family planning technique that involves having sex only at certain times of the month.

The NZ Medical Association said doctors can refuse treatment in non-emergency situations if their beliefs prohibit it - but they are required to refer the patient to another doctor.

Dr Lee was initially reluctant to do that, Ms Pont said, and she was concerned other women in her situation might not have had the confidence to argue back.

"I felt like my decision to not have children yet was being judged. That's a decision me and my fiance made," she said.

ALRANZ national president Morgan Healey said they acknowledged the right of health professionals under the law to object to certain treatments, but current guidelines were not clear enough to protect patients' health care and rights.

Dr Healey said while the Medical Council of New Zealand had recently updated its Good Practice guidelines, which stipulated that a doctor with a conscientious objection must inform their patients that they had a right to see another doctor, that did not go far enough.

"There is no requirement that the doctor with a conscientious objection must provide a referral to another doctor or assist the patient in finding care elsewhere," she said.

In 2010 a group of pro-life doctors took the Medical Council to a High Court in Wellington to challenge the guidelines, because they provided explicit obligations for medical practitioners to deal with patients seeking abortion care.

The Court decided in favour of the doctors and the Medical Council chose not to appeal, Dr Healey said.

"This has left open legal ambiguity about a medical practitioner's obligations."

Dr Healey also encouraged Ms Pont to seek redress with the Health and Disability Commissioner.

The Women's Health Action Trust said it has a "simmering issue" with GPs who would not prescribe contraceptives.

"Contraception is a basic health right for women," said senior policy analyst George Parker. "That should take precedence over a doctor's personal beliefs."

Dr Lee, who works at Wairau Community Clinic, stood by his views and actions.

"I don't want to interfere with the process of producing life," the Catholic father-of-two told the Herald on Sunday.

Dr Lee also did not prescribe condoms, and encouraged patients as young as 16 to use the rhythm method.

The only circumstances in which he would prescribe the contraceptive pill would be if a woman wanted space between pregnancies, or had at least four children.

"I think they've already done their reproductive job."

Wairau Community Clinic lead GP Scott Cameron said a pamphlet at reception warned that some doctors did not prescribe birth control, and staff tried to screen patients. He would consider installing a sign.

(Additional reporting: Rebecca Quilliam of APNZ)


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