Ms PATTEN (Northern Metropolitan) (13:10): I move:
That the bill be now read a second time.
When the USA Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and with it nearly 40 years of women’s abortion rights, it caused shock waves here. In Victoria, thousands took to the street in protest. My sense was that the loss of that principle in the USA felt like a loss to women and gender-diverse people everywhere. We felt acutely the stripping of autonomy and the debasement of women. It was a slap in the face to the gender equality that we continue to fight for.
It caused many of us to ask, ‘Could it happen here too?’.
The very sad truth is that it is happening here. Right here and right now, in the Victorian public health system, women and gender-diverse people are being denied the right to contraception and abortion. Similarly, Victorians in the public health system are being denied the right to access voluntary assisted dying.
The problem is of Catholic origin.
The Health Service Act 1988, the foundational piece of legislation that make provisions for the carrying on of hospitals in Victoria, distinguishes between two types of public hospital—ordinary public hospitals and denominational hospitals. The latter being Catholic public hospitals, or in other words, Catholic hospitals that are publicly funded to provide public health services.
It is these publicly funded denominational hospitals that may be denying women the right to contraception and abortion, and all of us, the right to voluntary assisted dying. It is that issue this bill seeks to cure.
Let me give you some examples.
A pregnant woman is zoned to attend the Mercy Hospital for Women—a major public hospital specifically providing obstetrics, neonatal and gynaecological care. Despite it being a major public hospital for women, she cannot obtain contraception, abortion or family planning advice there.
A woman who is prescribed the pill is knocked off her bike and rushed to emergency at St Vincent’s public hospital. Her injuries cause her to be admitted for several nights. When asked about the medication she usually takes, she is told by the nursing staff that they do not have pharmacy stock to dispense the pill.
A terminally ill patient is admitted to the public system palliative care hospital Calvary Health Care Bethlehem. There they cannot access advice on voluntary assisted dying, despite that being their wish.
A patient undergoes a C-section for the birth of their third child. They request a tubal ligation. The Mercy Hospital refuses this procedure and the patient must wait to recover from their caesarean to undergo a second procedure at a different hospital.
In the public system, where patients do not have a choice of provider, public hospitals simply should not be refusing ordinary public health services.
Women and gender-diverse people deserve better. The terminally ill deserve better. The public health system should not be limited by the minority views of a religion—not in Melbourne, Victoria, in the year 2022.
This bill will change that.
The heart of the problem lies in the artifice of institutional conscience. It is a confection, and this bill makes that clear. An organisation does not have a conscience, it cannot think, which means it is ideology not conscience that is preventing access to contraception, abortion and voluntary assisted dying.
In practice it suppresses conscience. For example, a patient in good conscience may request a lawful medical service and a doctor may in good conscience be willing to provide it. However, if the institution’s code prohibits certain procedures for religious reasons, both the patient and doctor’s consciences are arbitrarily suppressed by the rule.
This occurred recently when a patient pregnant with twins found after a series of scans that at 20 weeks there was no amniotic fluid and both twins’ lungs had not developed. They would not survive outside the womb and the patient had developed a dangerous infection from the leaking amniotic fluid. The only safe option for the woman was to be induced, but the woman and her doctor were forced to leave St Vincent’s Hospital and go to another hospital to undertake this really sad procedure.
This bill will ensure that ideology has no place in the public health system and that individuals, not organisations, can conscientiously object. Nothing proposed in this bill interferes with an individual health practitioner’s right to conscientiously object, and that is based on their own sincerely held beliefs or moral concerns. That personal right remains protected.
Turning to the detail of the bill, the purpose of the bill is to amend the Health Services Act 1988 in relation to contraception, abortion and voluntary assisted dying services provided by denominational hospitals and to make related amendments to the Abortion Law Reform Act 2008 and the Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2017.
The bill is directed at denominational hospitals specifically, as it is only these hospitals in the public health system that are engaging in the type of institutional discrimination against women and the terminally ill that the bill seeks to remedy.
The bill nominally commences on 1 July 2023, if not proclaimed earlier.
The bill introduces an obligation to provide certain services in certain circumstances akin to the examples I highlighted earlier, and that is with respect to contraception, the supply of contraception from in-house pharmacies, abortion and voluntary assisted dying services.
The bill provides that a denominational hospital cannot direct or otherwise cause a registered health practitioner to refuse to provide these services.
The right of an individual doctor to refuse on the basis of a conscientious objection is not affected.
Victorians should have access to the same basic services in the public health system, whether they find themselves in a public or denominational hospital. It is a matter of equality. For too long women and gender-diverse people have faced barriers because of stigma, shame, or geography. Public hospitals should not be an added barrier.
We have achieved safe access. Now it is time for fair access.
I commend the bill to the house.
Fiona Patten MP
Leader of Reason
Member for Northern Metropolitan Region
Second reading speech 2/8/22