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GP pleased Medical Council drops abortion statement appeal

Media statement from Catherine Hallagan

Dr Catherine Hallagan, a General Practitioner from Wellington and spokesperson for the New Zealand Health Professionals Alliance, told NZ Doctor that the NZHPA is very pleased that the Medical Council has abandoned its appeal.

Dr Hallagan said that she had felt strongly about challenging the Medical Council’s draft statement on “Beliefs and medical practice”since first reading it in 2009. “I was shocked at what I read and I believed that the Medical Council was planning to do something which would overstep the law. If published, I thought that the obligations imposed by the guidelines would override a doctor’s lawful right to conscientious objection, especially with respect to abortion referrals.  Parliament has already legislated on this situation (Section 174 of the Health Practitioners Competency Assurance Act 2003) and it was not for the Medical Council to overrule that right.”

The difficult decision to take the Medical Council of New Zealand to the High Court seeking a Judicial Review of the draft Statement has been vindicated, according to Dr Hallagan. She was first plaintiff, and the New Zealand Health Professionals Alliance was second plaintiff. The NZHPA has among its members, many doctors from several specialties. The plaintiffs wanted a declaration from the High Court that the Medical Council was acting beyond its statutory role if it was to publish the draft Statement.

Judge A D MacKenzie in his written judgement rejected aspects of the draft Statement. He also directed the Council to reconsider its proposed statement taking into account the terms of his judgment. The initial response of the Medical Council was to appeal the High Court Judgement, and a cross appeal was also laid.

However, in the past month a decision has been made by the parties to abandon the appeal and cross appeal. The draft Statement on “Beliefs and medical practice”has been withdrawn and will not be otherwise published. Dr Hallagan said that this is a very satisfactory outcome after a long and testing journey. She hopes that the Medical Council can now refocus its energy in upholding standards of excellence in the profession, and by admonishing bad doctors not good ones.

Dr Hallagan hopes that any doctors reading about this case who may be troubled by referring patients for consideration of an abortion because of a conscientious objection to providing that service, can be reassured that they do not have to make such a referral.  What the doctor must do is inform the person who requests the service that she can obtain the service from another health practitioner or from a family planning clinic.

The Judicial Review validated the lawful right of a medical practitioner to practice independently in accordance with his or her conscience. This right lies at the heart of being a true health professional.

Dr Catherine Hallagan BA MBChB Diploma of Obstetrics FRNZCGP                        November 23 2011