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SocietyDecember 6, 2018

Why are doctors and their medical association fighting against reproductive rights?

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A group of doctors are fighting as ‘conscientious objectors’ on abortion, and the NZ Medical Association is in their corner. Emily Writes is not impressed.

This week, a group of doctors in New Zealand said they would “fight” for the right to not provide advice to pregnant women.

It is, as I see it, part of a sustained campaign by anti-choice groups to distort the argument about what abortion law reform will really look like.

The facts are this: No doctor has ever been forced to perform abortions. No doctor will ever be forced to perform abortions.

That is not how abortions work. You have to actually be trained in performing abortions to perform them. That will not change if the Law Commission’s proposal for abortion law reform is accepted in parliament.

The law as it stands means that a doctor can just ignore you if you ask for advice about abortion. They can refuse to give you any information.

The Law Commission has offered three proposals. These proposals suggest that if you’re a doctor, and a pregnant person comes into your office and asks for information about a termination, you will be required to send them to Family Planning or a doctor who can refer them to an abortion provider.

Yes. That’s all. They won’t have to provide an abortion. They won’t have to refer a patient for an abortion. They will simply have to suggest another doctor for the person to go to.

I know right? Let’s start a Givealittle for these poor oppressed doctors who have to give someone a phone number before their next appointment where they charge someone the equivalent of three hours work on minimum wage for their eight-minute appointment.

Currently, if you’re pregnant and your doctor won’t give you advice because of their religious beliefs, you need to find another doctor who will. In theory, you could go to three doctors in a row who all refuse to refer you. Imagine telling your story over and over again, waiting for appointments, being refused appointments because you’re not a clinic’s patient. If you have a Family Planning clinic in your area you can see them knowing you will get the advice you need and a referral – but when it comes to GP, most who won’t provide advice not only refuse to put this on their websites, or advise before appointments – they actively campaign publicly against having to declare it!

Now, there’s no other time a doctor can refuse to treat a patient on the grounds that they just don’t like the choices their patient makes.

Oh wait – there is.

OK, guess what it involves?

I’ll give you a clue: Misogyny.

Yes, the only other time a doctor can refuse to help you and be completely within the law is if you want contraception.

Check out (b) in the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977:

  1. Conscientious objection

(1) Notwithstanding anything in any other enactment, or any rule of law, or the terms of any oath or of any contract (whether of employment or otherwise), no medical practitioner, nurse, or other person shall be under any obligation—

(a) To perform or assist in the performance of an abortion or any operation undertaken or to be undertaken for the purpose of rendering the patient sterile:

(b) To fit or assist in the fitting, or supply or administer or assist in the supply or administering, of any contraceptive, or to offer or give any advice relating to contraception,—

if he objects to doing so on grounds of conscience.

Amazing huh? Great pronouns. It’s almost like this is about policing women’s bodies and isn’t at all about “conscientious objection” which makes it sound like these doctors are brave when in actuality they just don’t want to do their literal job.

This isn’t a peaceful resistance; this is a war on women.

The NZ Medical Association has decided it backs the status quo. The organisation which describes itself as “the country’s only pan-professional medical organisation in New Zealand representing the collective interests of all doctors” has decided it’s OK that doctors don’t give advice when it comes to pregnancy and contraception. Not all members back that stance – several have told me they weren’t consulted.

But nevertheless, its position is unambiguous. “The NZMA strongly supports the retention of the existing provisions of conscientious objection,” it said in its submission.

And make of this what you will: “We do however consider that a doctor should be the referrer, confirming that the required eligibility grounds are met.” Most groups within the system support a “health practitioner” being the referrer.

Dr Catherine Hallagan has said on the website of the Tawa Medical Centre where she works that she’s on the board of the NZMA. On the NZMA website, she’s not on the board list. The NZMA have said that Dr Hallagan was on the board for one term from May 2015 to May 2017. Hallagan has been a vocal leader of the anti-choice brigade for more than a decade, commenting in every media outlet that will interview her.

In 2010, Dr Hallagan took a case to the High Court opposing proposed changes to Medical Council guidelines on how doctors deal with abortion requests. The High Court upheld her right to opt out of giving advice to patients about their choices relating to pregnancy.

In 2011, the Medical Council of New Zealand (MCNZ) decided not to appeal the judge’s ruling. They could not afford it. Women’s reproductive rights feel powerless in the face of doctors who can afford expensive lawyers.

Dr Hallagan is also chair of the New Zealand Health Professionals Alliance – all of this is on her bio, but is often missing in media articles about her. The fact that she won’t provide advice on abortion isn’t mentioned on the Tawa Medical Centre website.

Why is she not being transparent about how her attitude on her practice’s website? Why isn’t it being made clear to clients how she’ll respond if they say want an abortion?

Anyway, surely the NZMA, which is not compulsory to be part of, and does not represent all doctors, will consider how much of a mind-fuck this whole thing is and re-evaluate their position.

All doctors should be speaking out about this undeserved smear on their reputations. I look forward to seeing their comments in the media. I want to see doctors stand up for their profession and their patients. If their association won’t do it, then they have a responsibility to.

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