Women already face discrimination when seeking the care they’re entitled to. Morrison’s Religious Discrimination Bill is about to legalise it.

 

 

“The Mater Centre for Maternal Fetal Medicine provides a full range of prenatal diagnostic and therapeutic options and is very active in research, collaborating with a wide range of perinatal specialists and scientists from around the world…the centre has an excellent reputation for providing quality and compassionate care to women and babies with complex complications in pregnancy, in accordance with the philosophy and tradition of the Sisters of Mercy.”

The Mater Mothers Hospital in Brisbane is one of the twenty-one Australian public hospitals that are operated by the Catholic Church. They are publicly funded but privately operated and are able to refuse to offer legal health services to many patients, including terminations for any reason or for ‘complex complications in pregnancy’. If a foetus is diagnosed with complications so complex they are incompatible with life ‘in accordance with the philosophy and tradition of the Sisters of Mercy’ the devastated patient is told to go elsewhere unless she agrees to continue the pregnancy to its inevitable, hideous end.

In some regional areas, a Catholic-run public hospital may be the only one available. Not all Catholic health providers run public hospitals. There are many Catholic pharmacists, for example. No doubt most of them are sensible, compassionate professionals who do not allow their personal faith to influence their obligation to provide legally available medications either via a doctor’s prescription or over the counter.

Unfortunately, however, some may. Many women, especially young women, tell stories of being shamed by their local pharmacist for requesting the morning after pill or for accessing the abortion drug RU486, which must be prescribed by a doctor. Speaking of doctors, particularly in regional areas where the choice of practitioner can be limited, there is also the shaming that they may have to endure when they go to an unsympathetic doctor for help with an unwanted pregnancy. According to 2019 figures from Marie Stopes, only 5% of GPs are registered RU486 prescribers, but this drops to 0.2% in rural NSW.

If a woman has an unplanned pregnancy, and it is estimated up to 1 in 3 women will access a termination in their lifetime, she must run the gauntlet of other people’s judgements, personal convictions, religious faith and unwanted opinions to access health care that is now legal in every state of Australia. Tragically, if she has a wanted pregnancy that develops serious complications she may have to endure the same pressures. This is despite the fact that survey after survey has shown that more than 80% of Australians support decriminalising abortion, regardless of their own religious beliefs.

Our conservative, Christian-heavy Federal government is about to debate a “Religious Freedom Bill” which many women – including me – fear will seek to further restrict our ability to access legal medical procedures due to other people’s religious scruples. If you don’t believe in abortion or contraception, don’t use them. No one is trying to make them compulsory. If you don’t believe in voluntary assisted dying, don’t access it. Like same-sex marriage, these reforms are entirely about people’s rights to choose for themselves in a pluralist, secular democracy. No one is suggesting everyone must participate. If you are a medical provider who disapproves, however, deciding to put your views ahead of your patient’s welfare may create problems.

 

When it comes to publicly funded hospitals – paid for by the 81% of us who believe abortion is up to women – it is unconscionable that they can be run by any group who would limit access to legal health care merely because of their own beliefs.

 

Frankly, if someone sincerely believes that they cannot be associated with abortion, contraception or voluntary assisted dying, even when legalised by a democratically elected government, perhaps they should consider whether a career as a GP, a pharmacist or – especially – an obstetrician or gynaecologist is right for them. Patients seeking legal health procedures should never be shamed, humiliated, lectured, preached at or deserted by their health providers.

However, as seems likely for the foreseeable future, if we are going to continue to allow medical practitioners to exercise their freedoms at the expense of the freedom of others, women, members of the LGBTQI community, those facing terminal illness and, indeed, all of us should at the very least be clearly informed about what each practitioner and institution will and will not provide and why. ‘In accordance with the philosophy and traditions of the Sisters of Mercy’ does not cut it in my view. GPs, specialists and pharmacists who will not provide contraception, abortion services or end of life choices should be required to publicise this fact prominently on all signage and communications so that patients do not have to unwittingly expose themselves to unwanted disapproval or proselytising, especially when they are feeling vulnerable.

 

 

When it comes to publicly funded hospitals – paid for, after all by all taxpayers, including women, including the 81% of us who believe abortion is up to women – it is unconscionable that they can be run by any group who would limit access to legal health care merely because of their own beliefs. If that is their view, let them run privately funded hospitals and leave the public sector to support all patients not simply those whose choices they approve of.

Women are over 50% of the population. Not all of them support abortion rights, of course, but it would be a rare woman who has not sat white-knuckled on the toilet wondering why her period has not come and fearing she might have to make some difficult decisions. Yet unwanted pregnancy is still regarded by many as something that happens to a small number of no-better-than-she-should-be women you’d never meet in polite society. It’s not, of course. Like sexual assault, harassment and abuse, unplanned pregnancy is a shadow that hangs over all sexually active women. A stray sperm can get any one of us and contraception is not foolproof. 

The problem is that we still regard everything to do with reproduction as a women’s issue and even in 2021, women may be seen as having issues, but they are still not seen as having rights as citizens, tax-payers and health care consumers.

This has to change.

 

 

 

 

 

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