Freedom of conscience conditional upon gestational age
The Abortion Law Reform Act 2019 No. 11 has become law in New South Wales, Australia. It is obviously modelled on Queensland’s Termination of Pregnancy Act 2018.
The law permits abortion up to 22 weeks gestation for any reason; no medical indications are required (Section 5). Abortion after 22 weeks gestation may be performed for any reason that two specialist practitioners find sufficient, including current and future “social circumstances” (6(3)b).
A provision for conscientious objection requires disclosure of objections to abortion by a practitioner when asked by someone (not necessarily a patient) to perform or assist in the performance of an abortion on someone else, to make a decision about whether an abortion should be provided for someone else who is over 22 weeks pregnant (Section 6), or to advise about the performance of an abortion on someone else.
The law requires disclosure of objections to abortion by a
practitioner when asked by someone (not necessarily a patient) to
perform or assist in the performance of an abortion on someone else
[(9(1)a(i) and (ii)], to make a decision about whether an abortion
should be provided for someone else who is over 22 weeks pregnant
[(9(1)a(iii)], or to advise about the performance of an abortion on
someone else [(9(1)a(iv)].
When a woman up to 22 weeks pregnant wants an abortion or
advice about an abortion [i.e., under 9(1)a(i) or (ii)], an objecting
practitioner is required to disclose his objection [9(2)] explain how
she can contact a non-objecting practitioner [9(3)a], or transfer the
care of the patient to a practitioner willing to provide an abortion, or
to an agency (health service provider) where an abortion can be
However, if the woman is over 22 weeks pregnant, a
practitioner is obliged to disclose objections to abortion but, if not
convinced that the abortion should be performed, is not obliged to
facilitate the abortion by explaining how she can contact a
non-objecting practitioner or by a transfer of care to a willing
colleague. That is because section 9(3) makes no reference to
Practitioners who object to abortion in principle and those who object in particular cases are often unwilling to facilitate the procedure by referral, arranging transfers of care or other means because they believe that this makes them parties to or complicit in an immoral act. Thus, the provision for conscientious objection in the bill actually suppresses the exercise of freedom of conscience by these practitioners with respect to abortions up to 22 weeks gestation.
On this point Queensland’s Termination of Pregnancy Act, while it also suppresses the exercise of freedom of conscience by physicians who object to referral for abortion, at least does so consistently from conception to birth.
It is possible that the wording of this provision has been been muddled in New South Wales either in an attempt to put an end to the idea that only women can become pregnant, or to avoid the possibility that abortion might not be available to a woman who believes that she is a man, or who believes that she is neither a woman nor a man, but who becomes pregnant.
In any case, New South Wales is the first jurisdiction to make the exercise of freedom of conscience in relation to abortion conditional upon the gestational age of an embryo or foetus. A physician will be free to fully exercise freedom of conscience at 22 weeks plus one day, but not at 22 weeks minus one day. The inexact calculation of gestational age contributes further to the arbitrariness of this restriction of fundamental human freedom.