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Doctors challenge abortion rules

Doctors have been misinformed on their obligations toward women seeking abortion, says the lawyer in a High Court challenge to the Medical Council.

The council’s “Beliefs and Medical Practice” statement had got it wrong, said Harry Waalkens QC on behalf of doctors challenging the statement in a judicial review in the High Court at Wellington today [1 November].

Tawa GP Catherine Hallagan and a group of like-minded health professionals are taking the case.

The council’s most recent statement, kept confidential until now, tells doctors with a conscientious objection to abortion, if consulted by a pregnant woman who wishes to have an abortion, they must arrange for another practitioner to consider the case.

“That is wrong,” Mr Waalkens said. For example, the doctor might determine an abortion could not legally take place and would then have no further legal obligations, he said. The council statement did not spell this out.

Council defends statement

The council defends its statement, saying it was developed in pursuit of the statutory purpose to protect the health and safety of the public.

Chair John Adams told New Zealand Doctor the statement draws on existing ethical and legal requirements.

Dr Adams says the council will welcome a High Court ruling.

The Medical Council was to start putting its defence late this afternoon.

Counsel questions legal status of Medical Council statement

Mr Waalkens said the council’s statement used mandatory language when it had no status in law. Disciplinary processes could follow a breach.

He said the council had not accurately reflected the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act as amended by Parliament in 1978.

The amendment sprang from a stated desire to make it “black and white” that a woman’s own doctor could talk with her about her case before referring her onto another doctor.

Mr Waalkens also said the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act excluded offering advice on abortion services: “Advice relating to facilitate the patient obtaining an abortion…will be [incorrectly] involving the doctor with the conscientious objection in the pursuit of an abortion/abortion service.”

He said the Bill of Rights Act right of freedom of conscience and belief without interference must trump the Medical Council statement.

The case continues.