Some women who want to terminate their pregnancies in Victoria are being humiliated and delayed by GPs who are conscientious objectors.
Most doctors who object to abortion “do the right thing” and refer women on, Louise Keogh, Associate Professor of Health Sociology at the University of Melbourne, said.
But a small minority of anti-abortion doctors in Victoria were breaking state law by failing to refer women seeking abortions to providers, she said.
The qualitative research was published earlier this year and was presented at the Unplanned Pregnancy and Abortion Conference in Brisbane in August.
Of the 19 abortion experts interviewed (including 13 medical doctors), all shared horror stories about doctors who had pushed their anti-abortion views onto patients.
In rare cases, this seriously compromised the woman’s healthcare by delaying or obstructing their access to abortion.
“There was definitely a case where a woman was forced to continue her pregnancy due to the doctor blocking access to an abortion and there was a case where a woman was forced to have a much later abortion,” Professor Keogh said.
Women who were less than nine weeks pregnant could have a medical abortion, but after 12 weeks the abortion became much more complicated and expensive, she said.
“Time is really of the essence when it comes to abortion,” she said. “Basically, if you add weeks, you add time and money and trauma. Delay is not good.”
The interviewees were also very concerned about doctors making women feel guilty about their decision to have an abortion.
One study participant was worried that doctors were coming across as judgmental by telling women they had a conscientious objection.
“If a woman’s pregnant … often she’s in a more vulnerable state and to have someone in authority like that, who she’s dependent on for care at that moment to say, ‘what you’re asking for I think is wrong and is immoral,’ I think it’s a slap in the face to that woman,” the study participant said.
Professor Keogh also presented a second study at the conference looking at GPs working in the Grampians region outside of the regional city of Ballarat.
This study surveyed 84 GPs, of whom around 20 responded. Of these, 38% said they had a conscientious objection to abortion.
“We did get to interview two of the conscientious objectors and so we found out a little bit more about their practice,” Professor Keogh said.
“One said he does try to get the woman into someone else at his clinic, and the other one likes to see women twice and [that] would entail some delay to those women being able to access abortion.
“So, this really just paints a picture that the law isn’t being adhered to in all situations and that it is having really negative consequences for women.”
Section 8 of the Abortion Law Reform Act 2008 in Victoria requires doctors with a conscientious objection to abortion to refer women to another provider.
“There’s no reason to assume that similar issues wouldn’t be occurring elsewhere in Australia, but it would need further research to confirm,” Professor Keogh said.
The Medical Republic asked AHPRA how many doctors had complaints made against them by patients in relation to scheduling unnecessary follow-up appointments, making them feel guilty and failing to refer to another GP for an abortion.
“We do not produce the data that you have requested,” a spokesperson said.