The Labor Party announced it would use federal funds to require public hospitals to provide abortions if elected, but then backtracked saying that not every hospital provides every procedure, writes Bernadette Tobin. ABC News.
New agreements with the states – which administer public hospitals – anticipated that “termination services will be provided consistently in public hospitals”.
Two days later, the Labor Party backed off, and made reassuring telephone calls to hospitals in the Catholic health sector. “Obviously, not every hospital provides every medical procedure – for example, not every hospital does brain surgery or heart surgery. That’s the same for terminations,” said an official for the party’s health spokesperson.
The claim that public funding includes an expectation that every public hospital will provide every available procedure, is little more than a slogan.
It obscures the very different reasons why a specific hospital might not conduct certain procedures, including for ethical and religious reasons.
Catholic hospitals do not provide abortions, by which it means “procedures, treatments or medications whose primary purpose or sole immediate effect is to terminate the life of a foetus or of an embryo before or after implantation”.
That definition, quoted from our code of ethics, is important for two reasons.
Firstly, because the institutional ethic of Catholic hospitals holds that “Such procedures … involve the direct and deliberate killing of an innocent human life in the earliest stages of development”.
Secondly, because the definition helps to distinguish deliberate terminations from other procedures with which they are sometimes confused. These can include emergency procedures needed to save the life of the mother or her baby or both.
Doctors in Catholic hospitals may legitimately attempt to cure a serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman in circumstances in which the intervention cannot be safely postponed until after the baby is viable.
The Labor Party’s decision to back away from requiring public hospitals to provide abortions recalls some of the policy issues the Victorian Government grappled with in 2017 when it legalised what it confusingly labels “voluntary assisted dying” (VAD).
The Victorian Act protects conscientious objection on the part of individual practitioners: they cannot be forced to provide information or support for VAD, to assess a person for VAD, nor to supply or give the “medication” for VAD.
The Health Department acknowledged that provision of this procedure may not align “with the values of the health service” and that this is one reason why a health service might decide not to participate.
In saying so, the Department acknowledges that both individuals and institutions have consciences.
– Bernadette Tobin is director of the Plunkett Centre for Ethics, a joint centre of Australian Catholic University, St Vincent’s Health Network and Calvary Healthcare