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Doctors’ abortion guidelines overstep law

New Medical Council guidelines for doctors dealing with the issue of abortion have overstepped the law and need to be amended, the High Court has ruled.

Among the requirements in the council’s beliefs and medical practice statement, doctors were required to ensure patients were aware that abortion was an option if they were concerned about their pregnancies.

Doctors who did not want to provide the service could refer the request elsewhere, informing the person it could be obtained from another health practitioner, or a family planning clinic.

A group of doctors raised objection to the statement in a judicial review at the High Court in Wellington last month, saying it wrongly required them to give advice that might facilitate the patient obtaining an abortion.

The group’s lawyer, Harry Waalkens, QC, said the statement was not in line with the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act itself, which excluded offering advice of abortion services.

In a decision released today, Justice Alan MacKenzie said the statement overstated doctors’ duties in one instance and, in another, imposed obligations beyond those imposed by law, New Zealand Doctor reported.

Justice MacKenzie said that when a woman requested an abortion, the proper course for a doctor who had a conscientious objection was to decline to embark upon the process, and inform the woman she could obtain the service from another health practitioner.

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

The judge ordered two paragraphs of the draft statement be amended to “make clear the doctor’s ability to decline to become medically involved”.

Medical Council chairman John Adams said time was needed to digest the judgment before reworking the statement for consideration by the council early next year.

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