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Back to court to fight out doctors’ abortion advice role

Legal debate is set to resume over a doctor’s obligations when consulted about abortion.

The Medical Council has appealed last year’s High Court judgement requiring it to change its guidance to doctors with a conscientious objection to abortion.

Talks have failed so far

Talks are continuing between the council and those who brought a case against it, says council chair John Adams.

“We have always been hopeful of a resolution, but have lodged the appeal.”

Council members feel strongly there is reason to appeal, given the council’s purpose and activities, Dr Adams says.

The costs will be met from the council’s normal budget.

The legal action may be expensive but the council has carefully weighed the possible costs against the implications of the issue, he says.

Dr Adams will not comment on the detail of the argument as the matter is before the court.

Beliefs statement at issue

The council is disputing the ruling of Justice Alan MacKenzie, who last October heard a judicial review application from Tawa Medical Centre GP Catherine Hallagan and the New Zealand Health Professionals Alliance.

They were challenging the council’s “Beliefs and Medical Practice” draft statement, and the judge later ruled in their favour (New Zealand Doctor, 15 December 2010).

Justice MacKenzie said 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 her she can obtain the service from another health practitioner or from a family planning clinic.

Professional standards cannot impose

“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,” the judge ruled.

In its draft statement on the matter, the Medical Council wanted to require doctors to be sure they were referring the patient to another doctor who could provide information on all her options.

The council had argued its statement recognised a doctor’s right to conscientious objection but limited in “a very reasonable way” the negative impact this might have on the patient’s right to access a service.

A date for the hearing in the Court of Appeal is not yet known.