The Medical Council has stopped an attempt to force anti-abortion doctors to refer patients to others who are prepared to assess them.
High costs have forced the decision to withdraw from a Court of Appeal case to defend a draft guideline on abortion and conscience. The decision has earned the council a rebuke from pro-abortion lobbyists.
A group of anti-abortion doctors took the council to the High Court last November. The Herald understands Finance Minister Bill English's wife Mary is among the group.
Justice Alan MacKenzie directed the council to reconsider the guideline, which he said would have exceeded doctors' statutory obligations.
He said doctors with a conscience objection to abortion could, when approached by a patient seeking one, either:
* Inform the patient that she could go to another doctor or family planning clinic, or
* Arrange a referral, if the doctor's conscience permitted, to another doctor.
This medical assessment is just the first step of obtaining an abortion. If this doctor considers the patient may be permitted to have an abortion on grounds such as serious risk of the pregnancy to her mental health, she must subsequently gain the approval of two certifying consultants.
The Abortion Law Reform Association has accused the council of caving in to pressure from anti-abortionists.
"[The association] is appalled and dismayed that the council has essentially ceded its statutory role of setting standards for doctors to a small group of anti-abortion health professionals," said association executive member Alison McCulloch.
The association said that the earlier an abortion was performed, the safer it was. Many women were unable to access abortion before nine weeks' gestation, a 2009 report found, and women already faced seeing up to five doctors to get approval.
That could now worsen. Waits, which already averaged more than three weeks, could lengthen.
The association said that although it had made a submission on the guideline, the pro-abortion doctors who took the court case were, because of the action, the only group which got to negotiate - in secret - with the council.
Ms McCulloch called on Health Minister Tony Ryall to investigate the council's handling of the matter.
The council's chairman, Dr John Adams, denied the council had taken a partisan approach, saying the council had no intention to urge the Government or Parliament to amend the law to reflect the intent of the withdrawn draft guideline, nor to ask the Abortion Supervisory Committee to do so.