Women would face further barriers to receiving healthcare under the proposed religious discrimination bill, advocates have warned, with the potential law overriding professional or employer obligations to treat patients.
While conscientious objectors already exist in the medical world, patients are protected by professional guidelines that provide patients with right to information and referrals, while employment conditions can require patients have their needs met.
But, echoing concerns raised by the Human Rights Legal Centre, Renee Carr, executive director of community advocacy group Fair Agenda, said under the legislation those protections would be lost.
“If these laws were brought in, any professional guidelines or employer policies that seek to ensure patients’ access to care, or protect patients from obstruction by practitioner’s religious beliefs would be open to challenge,” she said. “Professional bodies and employers will have a harder time justifying the reasonableness of their rules.”
While reproductive health, including contraception and abortions, were the most obvious examples, Carr said there was potential within the law for any health professional to object to treating a person on religious grounds.
“The law starts from the position that they have a right to do so unless that right is challenged,” she said.
“AMA guidelines state that a doctor with a conscientious objection should inform the patient – preferably in advance – inform them they have a right to see another doctor and that they have sufficient information to exercise that right, and then take necessary steps to ensure the patient’s access to care is not impeded.
“If the RDA provisions are implemented, such patient care focused guidelines would be presumed to be unreasonable, and a doctor could use religious beliefs, such as not believing in sex outside of marriage or providing emergency contraception because life begins at conception, to refuse to comply with them, until their validity is challenged in court.
“The law puts the personal religious views of a health professional before patient needs, creating enormous complexity and uncertainty for health services, and making it easier for doctors with objections to use their religious belief to not only refuse to provide care themselves but also to refuse to provide information about unbiased advice and care that is available elsewhere.”
The attorney general, Christian Porter, is considering possible amendments to the bill before the exposure drafts return to parliament next week. Porter has said he wants to find “an acceptable middle ground” with the bill, while supporters, such as the Australian Christian Lobby, push for more powers to hire, fire or reject on the grounds of religion.
Women’s Health Victoria team leader Julie Keys said obstructing access to healthcare compounded the stigma of reproductive health procedures, such as abortions, as well as adding to the cost and complexity of such procedures, particularly for patients in regional and remote areas, where choice was already limited.
“Women also experience significant psychological distress and stigma when they find their trusted health care providers will not enable them to access a service they are legally entitled to, whilst placing moral judgement on their reproductive choices,” she said.
Carr said that could impact patients who needed urgent care, such as the morning after pill, with pharmacy chains and health centres with access guidelines in place no longer adhered to.
“Under these [proposed] rules, pharmacy chains and health centres could be prevented from using their policies to require their doctors or pharmacists to disclose their religious objections in advance – so the only way women would know where they could get contraception, the morning after pill, or abortion care – is by seeking care from different doctors or pharmacists until they find one who won’t refuse,” she said.
“In rural and regional areas where access to reproductive healthcare is already limited, this could lead to significant delays in access to care and cost, as women are forced to spend time and money travelling to find someone who will provide the care they need.”
At a National Press Club debate with ACL director Martyn Iles on Wednesday, National Secular Lobby ambassador Fiona Patten also raised the issue of healthcare.
“The bill has the practical effect of giving health practitioners are right to refuse health services if the refusal is motivated by their religious belief,” she said.
“Consider a midwife, refusing to deliver a single mother’s baby. A rural pharmacist refusing to fill a teenage girl’s prescription for the pill. Or a Christian nurse simply refusing to treat a Muslim. Bizarrely, the bill does not offer non-religious health practitioners the same right, even though they may hold the same beliefs.”
Labor is yet to form an official position on the legislation, as it waits to see the final exposure draft, while key Senate crossbencher Jacqui Lambie has said she sees no need for the bill.