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Abortion statement defeated in court

The Medical Council is considering amendments to its draft statement on how doctors with a conscientious objection to abortion must respond to a patient requesting an abortion.

Conscientiously objecting doctors have successfully challenged the statement in court, saying it wrongly requires them to give advice that might facilitate the patient obtaining an abortion.

A ruling from High Court judge Alan MacKenzie, released this month, orders changes to the statement (>>nzdoctor.co.nz, ‘News’, 3 December).

It follows last month’s judicial review, heard on application from Tawa GP Catherine Hallagan and the New Zealand Health Professionals Alliance.

Justice MacKenzie says the council’s “Beliefs and Medical Practice” statement overstates doctors’ duty in one instance and, in another, imposes obligations beyond those imposed by law.

The judge rules, when a woman requests an abortion, the proper course for a doctor who has a conscientious objection is to decline to embark upon the process, and inform the woman she can obtain the service from another health practitioner or from a family planning clinic.

“This must be seen as a maximum obligation [of the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act], and not one which may be supplemented by the imposition of professional standards,” Justice MacKenzie says.

The council wanted to add an onus to ensure the doctor to whom the patient was referred could provide information on all her options.

Medical Council chair John Adams says the paragraphs will be reworked for consideration by the council early next year.

There was extensive consultation toward the draft statement, Dr Adams says.

The council thought it had achieved some clarity around the majority opinion and felt it was representative of good practice, he says.

Dr Hallagan says the Health Professionals Alliance is pleased with the judgement and happy to have the matter resolved.

The judgement vindicates concerns the alliance held at the outset about the Medical Council’s proposed statement, she says.