WelCom April 2021
High Court support has been sought on new abortion laws that force health professionals to choose between their conscience and their work.
The hearing, which began on Monday 8 March, went for three days. The case was brought to court by a group of health professionals, who sought the court’s help with aspects of the Abortion Legislation Act 2020.
The new legislation impedes their right to conscientiously object to providing abortion services without adversely affecting their employment, they said.
The New Zealand Health Professionals Alliance Inc (NZHPA) has asked the High Court to make a declaration that the abortion law is inconsistent with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act (1990).
Legal counsel for the group, Mr Ian Bassett, argued that part of the Abortion Legislation Act infringes on a health practitioners’ rights, including the right to freedom of conscience without interference.
Director of the Nathaniel Catholic Centre for Bioethics, Dr John Kleinsman, supported the move by NZHPA to challenge the new abortion legislation. ‘There is a push, and it is happening worldwide, to severely restrict healthcare professionals’ rights to exercise freedom of conscience according to their personal values, whether they be religious, personal, professional or ethical in their origin,’ he said.
‘Increasingly, some are thinking that if a practice has been made legally available by the State, then healthcare professionals have a duty to provide it, end of story.’
In September 2019, the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference (NZCBC) and the Nathaniel Bioethics Centre argued in a joint submission to the Justice Select Committee that, if no changes were made, the proposed new abortion legislation would fail to adequately protect health practitioners’ rights to freedom of conscience on a number of levels. And no changes were made to this part of the Bill.
The bishops’ submission noted, in particular, that the new law represented a significant departure from the law at the time under which a registered medical practitioner was not required to refer the pregnant woman to another practitioner: ‘Even while the stated intention of the proposed Bill is to balance the right to freedom of conscience of practitioners against a woman’s choice to access an abortion, we believe that the proposed Bill goes too far in making it mandatory to tell a pregnant woman how she can access the contact details of an abortion provider. In our considered view, this requirement makes the practitioner complicit in the abortion process.’
The NZCBC submission also opposed the idea that employers would be able to consider how a potential employee’s stance towards being involved in the abortion process could affect an employer’s ability to provide abortion services. Noting that it effectively introduced and legitimised employee discrimination on the basis of conscience, the bishops argued that it, ‘potentially brings a new and unacceptable level of coercion into the employer-employee relationship. By introducing such a dynamic into the employment relationship, we envisage various employees finding themselves in an impossibly difficult situation; employees with conscientious obligations and financial commitments to their own family may well feel they have no choice but to acquiesce to an employer’s demands. This is unjust.’
A decision from the High Court is expected within a few weeks.