By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, OCT. 12, 2008 (Zenit.org).- A heated debate over changes to the laws regulating abortion has divided opinion in the Australian state of Victoria over the past weeks. The bill was introduced into the lower house in August and reached the final stages of voting last week.
In spite of strong opposition from Church and pro-life groups the bill succeeded in passing through the state's lower house. In the upper house a vote on October 10 saw the bill passed in its second reading by 23 votes to 17, reported the Herald Sun newspaper the same day.
Debate continued on a number of amendments proposed to the bill, with a final vote taking place late that night, approving the bill by the same margin as the previous vote, reported the Age newspaper the following day.
The bill decriminalized abortion up to the 24th week of pregnancy and permitted later-term abortions with the approval of two doctors. Apart from making abortion easier, one of the major innovations is the elimination of the right of conscientious objection by doctors and other health care workers.
"The bill is an unprecedented attack on the freedom to hold and exercise fundamental religious beliefs," exclaimed Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne, in his Sept. 19 pastoral letter concerning the bill.
He pointed out that it is in contradiction to the state's charter of human rights, in that it requires health care professionals with a conscientious objection to abortion to refer patients seeking an abortion to other places where they can procure an abortion.
Moreover, it also requires health care workers with a conscientious objection to abortion to perform an abortion in whatever is deemed an emergency.
"The bill is clearly intended to require Catholic hospitals to permit the referral of women for abortions," he warned.
Archbishop Hart pointed out that the bill poses a real threat to the continued existence of Catholic hospitals. "Under these circumstances, it is difficult to foresee how Catholic hospitals could continue to operate maternity or emergency departments in this state in their current form," he said.
The Catholic Church operates 15 not-for-profit hospitals in this state and handles about a third of all births in Victoria, according to Martin Laverty, the CEO of Catholic Health Australia. Laverty wrote an article on the abortion law debate, published Sept. 24 in the Herald Sun.
One of Melbourne's auxiliary bishops, Christopher Prowse, pointed out that the new law would place nurses in a particularly vulnerable position. In an article published by the Herald Sun on Sept. 9, he explained that many would be under a duty to assist in an abortion if a doctor requests, and determines that it is an emergency.
"I do not believe that our community wants to force nurses, many of whom have a conscientious objection, to assist in late term abortions," stated Bishop Prowse.
Archbishop Hart's pastoral letter also highlighted a number of other defects with the legislation, such as the failure to safeguard the health of women by permitting abortions to be performed by doctors who have no qualifications or training in obstetrics.
As well, the bill fails to include any safeguards in terms of giving women information about possible side effects of abortion, and it also fails to put safeguards in place to protect women who may be pressured into seeking an abortion.
Nevertheless, defenders of the new law were vociferous in their support. The head of Pro-Choice Victoria, Leslie Cannold, dismissed as "hysterical scaremongering" the protests by doctors who defended their right to conscientiously object to performing an abortion or referring a patient to another doctor, reported the Australian newspaper, Oct. 7.
Ray Cassin, an opinion-writer for the Age newspaper, in a Sept. 12 article pointed out, however, that other Australian jurisdictions that have decriminalized abortion have not gone so far as the Victorian law in constraining conscience rights.
"What an insidious irony it is that this coercion of conscience is being carried out in the name of choice," he concluded.
Lawyers Timothy Ginnane and Greg Craven pointed out another irony, in an opinion article published Oct. 6 by the Herald Sun newspaper. The Members of Parliament voting on the bill were given the right to a conscience vote by their parties, but the new law denies that very same right.
They also argued that the bill contradicts the intent of Victoria's own Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities. The charter, however, in a subterfuge, has a savings clause saying it has no effect on laws applicable to abortion.
The bill is also contrary to international law, according to the group "Doctors in Conscience Against Abortion Bill," reported the Australian newspaper, Oct. 7. The group argues that the new law contradicts the U.N. International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.
"The bill is unprecedented in the Western world, in imposing laws that would force doctors to act in violation of their conscientious beliefs by actively assisting patients to obtain an abortion, stated Mary Lewis, on behalf of the group.
The United States, too, is debating the conscience rights of health care workers. The Department of Health and Human Services is reviewing a draft regulation that would deny federal funding to any hospital, clinic, health plan or other entity that does not allow employees to opt out of participating in care that runs counter to their personal convictions, reported the Washington Post, July 31.
This would include duties such as providing birth control pills, IUDs and the "morning after" emergency contraceptives.
''Women's ability to manage their own health care is at risk of being compromised by politics and ideology,'' said Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the largest abortion provider in the United States, reported the Associated Press, Aug. 21.
Cardinal Justin Rigali, by contrast, wrote to all members of Congress recommending "the freedom of health care providers to serve the public without violating their most deeply held moral and religious convictions on the sanctity of human life."
In the letter, Cardinal Rigali, who is chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said that the proposed regulation "provides self-described ‘pro-choice' advocates with an opportunity to demonstrate their true convictions. [...] [I]s the ‘pro-choice' label a misleading mask for an agenda of actively promoting and even imposing morally controversial procedures on those who conscientiously hold different views?"
In Canada, meanwhile, conscience rights came under threat in a proposal from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, reported the National Post newspaper, Aug. 15.
Currently doctors in Canada are allowed to opt out of prescribing birth control or morning-after pills or doing abortions when it goes against their conscience. The proposals sought to change that, saying that doctors should be prepared to set aside their personal beliefs.
Following a storm of criticism, the Ontario college amended the proposed norms, but the end document is still unsatisfactory, according to an article published Sept. 19 by the Catholic Register newspaper.
The policy now states that doctors should be aware that a decision to not offer some medical services may be contrary to the province's human rights code.
Benedict XVI warned Oct. 5 in his homily during the opening Mass for the synod of bishops that when man rids himself of God and fails to expect salvation from Him, he then "believes he can do as he pleases and that he can make himself the sole judge of himself and his actions."
"When men proclaim themselves the absolute proprietors of themselves and the sole masters of creation, can they truly buil d a society where freedom, justice and peace prevail?," he asked. "Does it not happen instead -- as the daily news amply illustrates -- that arbitrary power, selfish interests, injustice and exploitation and violence in all its forms are extended?"
Injustices that continue to happen, as the new abortion law in Victoria demonstrates.