#117 Fact sheet: Conscientious objection to termination of pregnancy
Victorian legislation supports the right of every woman to make her own health decisions.
Under the Abortion Law Reform Act 2008 (‘the Act’) medical practitioners who have a conscientious objection to termination of pregnancy are legally entitled to decline to provide advice and assistance. It is recommended that medical practitioners treat a conscientious objection as they would a conflict of interest, and act to avoid the conflict where possible. Placing signs in your waiting room and on your practice website stating that you are not available to provide advice or assistance with termination of pregnancy should assist to avoid a conflict situation occurring.
If the consultation is in progress and it becomes apparent that a patient is seeking advice regarding termination of pregnancy, the Act requires a medical practitioner who has a conscientious objection to (a) advise that s/he has a conscientious objection to termination of pregnancy, and b) provide a referral to a registered medical practitioner who the medical practitioner knows does not have a conscientious objection.
Medical practitioners troubled by the obligation to refer should remember that with a referral, the patient will be discussing her pregnancy and her options with another medical practitioner who can provide her with all the information and advice available. It is not a certainty that she will proceed with a termination.
While it is good medical practice to provide a written referral, there is no legal requirement to do so. Informing the patient where they can seek assistance and recording this in your notes would likely suffice.
If providing a written referral, you do not need to write a request for a pregnancy termination if it is against your beliefs. It is reasonable to ask the doctor to whom you are referring to, “Assist the patient with management of her pregnancy”.
Frequently raised concerns
I have a conscientious objection to abortion and cannot in good faith refer to a service provider.
The law does not require you to refer the patient to an abortion service provider - just someone who does not hold a conscientious objection.
I do not know any doctors who aren’t conscientious objectors.
The Victorian Government funds the 1800 My Options service to provide you with up to date information on available pregnancy counselling services provided by doctors who do not have a conscientious objection to pregnancy termination. Phone 1800 696 784 for assistance.
I feel uncomfortable putting a sign in my waiting room saying I am a conscientious objector; patients may not like it.
A sign in the waiting room is to save you and the patient from an uncomfortable consultation because you are required to inform the patient of your objection.
A notice template is provided below to assist members of AMA Victoria who have a conscientious objection to providing termination of pregnancy services. You may amend this template as you deem appropriate. Legal advice should be sought regarding any amendments.
Termination of pregnancy information
Because of Dr [INSERT NAME]’s personal beliefs, s/he is not able to offer you advice or assistance regarding termination of pregnancy, including medical and surgical abortion.
If you require advice or assistance regarding termination of pregnancy, please ask for an appointment with [INSERT DETAILS OF LOCAL FAMILY PLANNING CLINIC] or refer to Victoria’s 1800 My Options phone line 1800 696 784 and website www.1800myoptions.org.au.
ABORTION LAW REFORM ACT 2008 - SECT 8
Obligations of registered health practitioner who has conscientious objection
(1) If a woman requests a registered health practitioner to advise on a proposed abortion, or to perform, direct, authorise or supervise an abortion for that woman, and the practitioner has a conscientious objection to abortion, the practitioner must:
(a) inform the woman that the practitioner has a conscientious objection to abortion; and
(b) refer the woman to another registered health practitioner in the same regulated health profession who the practitioner knows does not have a conscientious objection to abortion.
(2) Subsection (1) does not apply to a practitioner who is under a duty set out in subsection (3) or (4).
(3) Despite any conscientious objection to abortion, a registered medical practitioner is under a duty to perform an abortion in an emergency where the abortion is necessary to preserve the life of the pregnant woman.
(4) Despite any conscientious objection to abortion, a registered nurse is under a duty to assist a registered medical practitioner in performing an abortion in an emergency where the abortion is necessary to preserve the life of the pregnant woman.
The members-only section of the AMA Victoria website includes fact sheets on many other important topics.
This article is intended to provide general advice only. The contents do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Readers should seek specific expert and legal advice in relation to the information provided in this article.