Victoria, Australia Decriminalises Abortion: Criminalises Doctors’ Consciences

By Hilary White

MELBOURNE, Australia, October 10, 2008 ( – The Upper House of the Australian state of Victoria voted Thursday night 23 to 17 to remove legal restrictions on abortion. The bill, which passed without amendments, decriminalises abortions up to 24 weeks gestation and has been the subject of acrimonious debate in the Victoria legislature.

Under the new law, babies in Victoria may be aborted at will up to 24 weeks gestation after which a mother will need the consent of two doctors. Premier John Brumby said that the law was one that “many women in our state find offensive”.

“We cast the law so that it wasn’t changing current practice; so that it did reflect current clinical practice. But what it does is takes out of the Criminal Code that particular procedure,” he said.

Amendments that would have allowed doctors who object to abortions to exercise their conscience rights were rejected. Pro-life advocates spoke of their disappointment at the bill’s passage. Pro-Life Victoria president Denise Cameron said the fight to stop abortion will not stop.

“This debate is by no means over,” Cameron said. “And I think in the cold light of day when the politicians leave the rarefied atmosphere of parliament’s house, they will wake up to what they’ve actually done,” she told reporters.

Opponents fear that the unamended bill will make criminals of doctors who have a conscientious objection to abortion. Cameron said that the failure of proposed amendments left doctors who object to abortion in an impossible position. “What is Mr Brumby going to do with the doctors and nurses who refuse toâEUR¦ who refuse to obey this law? Is he going to put them in jail? He hasn’t told us yet. What is the penalty for refusing to kill your patients?”

As the bill was passed, Catholic Health Australia, which operates 15 hospitals in the state, said it was ready to fight in the courts for the conscience rights of physicians.

CHA issued a media release on September 23rd saying it would not provide abortions or refer for them at Catholic hospitals in Victoria. CHA head Martin Laverty said, “We will challenge any new law in order to fulfil our Catholic principles. We are greatly disappointed that the parliament did not hear our request to let staff at our hospitals practise within their own conscience.”

Laverty said, “The legislation as currently drafted will require staff working in our hospitals to act contrary to Catholic mission and values.”

“For the near on 40 years that terminations have been accessible in Victoria and
elsewhere, rights of conscience of medical professionals have been respected. The Bill
now seeks to change this practice.”

The CHA warned that the Abortion Law Reform Bill would violate the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 in forcing medical professionals to act against their conscience.

Speaking from Rome, where he is participating in the Synod of Bishops, George Cardinal Pell of Sydney said that government should offer women in crisis pregnancies “more than simply an increasing number of ever more accessible ways in which their unborn children can be killed.”

Pell called the bill’s refusal to grant the conscience rights of physicians “tyranny”.

Cardinal Pell said, “The rights of freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief are fundamental. The ability to exercise conscientious objection is a keystone of democracy. All of us should have the right to hold a belief and not be compelled by the state to act contrary to that conviction.

“It is the difference between the free society and the one subject to tyranny. That conscientious objection is a fundamental human right is expressly recognised in similar legislation in various jurisdictions both overseas, as in the UK and New Zealand, and also domestically.”

Abortion remains in the Criminal Code in New South Wales and in Queensland, and some restrictions remain in South Australia.

Read related coverage:

Emotional Debate on Victoria, Australia Abortion Bill

Abortion Bill Passes Lower House in Victoria, Australia

Australian Archbishop Says Catholic Hospitals Set to Close in Face of Mandatory Abortion Bill

Tension Mounts as Australian Doctors Now Threaten Exodus if Mandatory Abortion Law is Passed


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