Why Right to Conscientious Objection Must Be Restored

Australian Doctor Says Victoria State’s Laws Are Tyrannical and Out of Step With Medical Profession

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It was a Melbourne man, Julian Savulescu, now an ethics professor at Oxford, who declared that doctors who will not provide abortion should be “punished through removal of license to practice”. He wrote in the British Medical Journal in 2006: “A doctors’ conscience has little place in the delivery of modern medical care. What should be provided to patients is defined by the law.” [i]

But no law has the authority to compel doctors to violate the principles of their vocation or mutilate their own conscience by collaborating in intentional killing. Yet in Victoria, under section 8 of the Abortion Law Reform Act 2008, the law does compel doctors to collaborate in killing, forcing them to facilitate abortion-on-demand of babies even older than those in our hospital nurseries. If doctors object to an abortion, they must refer the client to another doctor whom they know has no objection. [ii]

Laws to disallow a doctor’s conscientious objection are likely to deter the most conscientious young people from becoming doctors. That is what hard-headed strategists would like to see: an ethical purge of sensitive, often religious, consciences from the medical profession, either through Savulescu’s proposed “removal of license to practice” or by deterring students at the outset with the prospect of professional ostracism.

Free speech & free conscience

Medical ethicist Professor Nicholas Tonti-Filippini observed in The Age last November that section 8 has the power even to silence discussion about conscientious objection: 

A doctor who merely discussed with other doctors on Facebook his intention not to refer has been brought before a panel of the Australian Health Practitioners Regulation Authority (AHPRA) and he was cautioned about unprofessional conduct…. It is extraordinary that the law should compel a doctor to act against most codes of medical ethics… But it is even more extraordinary to be pursued by the regulator for what one says about this situation.[iii]

Free speech is the expression of free conscience; they stand or fall together. Section 8 is a sinister and bullying measure designed to silence both.

The leading medical campaigner on this issue in Victoria, Dr Eamonn Mathieson, says section 8 exists “to put fear into the hearts of doctors who practice medicine with a conscience and a morality different to the authors of this law”.   

And so, on April 28th 2012 we read in Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper:

A MELBOURNE doctor who refused to refer a couple for an abortion because they wanted only a boy has admitted he could face tough sanctions… The couple had asked Dr Mark Hobart to refer them to an abortion clinic after discovering at 19 weeks they were having a girl when they wanted a boy. By refusing to provide a referral for a patient on moral grounds or refer the matter to another doctor, Dr Hobart admits he has broken the law and could face suspension, conditions on his ability to practice or even be deregistered.

This talk tonight is dedicated to that 19 week old baby girl who was put to death for the crime of being a girl, with the full blessing of Victoria’s evil laws. It is dedicated to Victorian doctors like Mark Hobart who are being harassed by the authorities because they refuse to collaborate with an oppressive law – a law which, in the judgement of Frank Brennan SJ, former head of Australia’s Human Rights Consultation Committee, “carries the hallmarks of totalitarianism”.[iv]

How has it come to this, that a quarter century after the fall of Soviet Communism and nearly seventy years after the Nuremberg trials, a Victorian statute is described in terms usually reserved for dictatorships? Lawyer and University Vice-Chancellor Professor Greg Craven felt justified in labelling section 8 ‘genuinely fascist’.[v] Professor Tonti-Fillipini agreed that “expecting a doctor to act against his conscience is totalitarian”,[vi] and the mild-mannered father of general practice in this country, Emeritus Professor John Murtagh, was moved to call section 8 “Stalinesque”.[vii]

Do Victorian politicians know no shame, to be tolerating the sort of tyrannical law that was more characteristic of our culture’s mortal enemies through a world war and a cold war?

Fundamental injustice

Opposition to intentional killing is not some pedantic scruple of religious minds, which a secular society may indulge or dismiss depending on how tolerant it feels. No: it is the foundation of human justice in all civilisations. There can be no more foundational ground for conscientious objection than an objection to intentional killing.  

The Australian Medical Association has made its opposition to section 8 admirably clear, with President Dr Steve Hambleton saying last year: 

The Victorian legislation is incongruous with the medical profession’s code of practice and appears to fail to recognise that doctors have rights too.[viii]

Victorian Premier Denis Napthine was initially impressed with the medical opposition to section 8 and voted against the Abortion Law Reform Act 2008. So how can he preside over such a law as Premier, and do nothing?

He should take courage from another politician who died ten years ago. Ronald Reagan rejected the cowardly stance of détente with the Soviet Union and condemned the evil empire for what it was. Along with two other courageous figures, Mrs Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, he dared to confront this monstrous system and bring it down. He famously and unflinchingly demanded, in front of that section of the iron curtain that divided Berlin, “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall”.

If the Premier of Victoria were to abandon the cowardly stance of détente to the monstrous evil of the Abortion Law Reform Act he could start with section 8.

Respectfully: “Mr Napthine, tear up this law”, and start to heal the conscience of your Parliament and your State.

This is an abridged version of an address given to the Life Dinner in Melbourne on June 14th by Dr David van Gend, a Toowoomba GP and Queensland secretary of the World Federation of Doctors who Respect Human Life. He blogs at www.DavidvanGend.com


[i] Savulescu J, Conscientious objection in medicine, BMJ Vol 332, Feb 2006 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1360408/

[ii] Abortion Law Reform Act 2008 at http://www.legislation.vic.gov.au/Domino/Web_Notes/LDMS/PubStatbook.nsf/f932b66241ecf1b7ca256e92000e23be/BB2C8223617EB6A8CA2574EA001C130A/$FILE/08-58a.pdf

[iii] Prof Nicholas Tonti-Fillipini re Facebook case at http://www.theage.com.au/comment/facebook-exposes-abortion-law-dilemma-for-victorian-doctors-20131113-2xg1a.html

[iv] Brennan on totalitarian laws at http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=9155#.U4seIv1q4uI

[v] Craven G, ‘Denying People Right to Conscience Akin to Fascism’, The Age (online), 28 September 2008 http://www.theage.com.au/news/opinion/denying-people-right-to-conscience-akin-to-fascism/2008/09/25/1222217428407.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap1

[vi] Tonti-Fillipini quoted in Kr
on J, op cit. http://www.australiandoctor.com.au/articles/a1/0c03f1a1.asp

[vii] Murtagh J quoted in Tonti-Fillipini op cit. http://www.theage.com.au/comment/facebook-exposes-abortion-law-dilemma-for-victorian-doctors-20131113-2xg1a.html

[viii] AMA quotes, ibid.

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David van Gend

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