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Medical Council defends its abortion rules

The Medical Council is standing by its requirement that doctors ensure women have access to information on abortion services.

It is not sufficient for doctors with a conscientious objection to inform a patient requesting an abortion that she can go to a Family Planning clinic or another doctor, the council’s lawyer told the High Court at Wellington today.

Mary Scholtens QC is responding for the council to a challenge to its latest Beliefs and medical practices statement.

Statement compatible with doctors’ and patients’ rights – defence lawyer

The council statement requires a doctor who chooses because of a conscientious objection not to provide a service, to give a patient the names and contact details of doctors who do provide the service.

In this case, the council says the details are of doctors who provide information on a woman’s available options, which some doctors object to doing.

The statement simply seeks to clarify how best practically to give effect to the law that limits the impact of conscientiously objecting doctors on patients’ interests, Ms Scholtens submitted today.

The statement gives effect to both doctors’ and patients’ rights, compatibly, says her submission to the court.

Defence lawyer points to wording of abortion law

The High Court challenge is brought by Catherine Hallagan, a Tawa GP, and the New Zealand Health Professionals Alliance.

For the applicants, Harry Waalkens QC yesterday said doctors with a conscientious objection could consider the case of a woman asking for an abortion (>>nzdoctor.co.nz, ‘News’, 1 November).

These doctors might determine an abortion could not be carried out (if, for example, the pregnancy was beyond 20 weeks) or might disclose their objection and say the woman could go to family planning or another doctor.

But Ms Scholtens argued these doctors must by law “arrange” for the case to be considered by another doctor who they can be confident is prepared to consider it.

The use of the word “arrange” in the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act and its 1978 amendments was crucial.

Challengers want parts of statement declared illegal

Mr Waalkens said the council statement was outside the law and an attempt to require doctors to be involved with facilitating abortion when they objected.

Dr Hallagan and co-challengers are asking Justice Alan MacKenzie to declare unlawful various parts of the statement, and are seeking costs.

Doctors have professional as well as statutory obligations – defence lawyer

Ms Scholtens argued professional standards imposed additional obligations on top of statutory ones.

Although it did not specify the giving out of names and contact details, the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers’ Rights meant a woman must be given information on her options.

The Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act imposed a duty to arrange consideration by another doctor, and the council’s statement gave additional steps appropriate for the conscientiously objecting doctor, she agreed under questioning by Justice MacKenzie.

The council was aware of cases where patients seeking abortion or contraception had been thwarted.

The case continues today.