October 17, 2013  |  Statements on Reports

Review of Charter of Human Rights & Responsibilities Act 2006

I rise to speak on the Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee (SARC) review of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006, which was tabled in this house in September 2011. We are still waiting for the full government response to that report. I particularly want to go to the section in relation to the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights and the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, which begins on page 27.

Reference was made in that report and in a number of written submissions, as well as by those who gave evidence to the committee, to the importance of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. There were also concerns in relation to section 48 of the charter, which limits those rights, particularly in relation to abortion law.

A very well-publicised case has recently appeared in both the Herald Sun and online. A lot of feedback has been received in relation to the case of Dr Mark Hobart, who exercised his conscience by failing to refer a woman with a 19-week-old female pregnancy for an abortion. He has been called before the Australian Health Practitioners Regulation Agency (AHPRA). Today I want to outline a case of yet another doctor who has been hauled before AHPRA, a case which also goes to the heart of the matter in SARC’s review of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006.

Section 48 of the charter makes it extremely difficult for doctors in this state who have a conscientious objection to referring every single person who comes to them who wants to end their pregnancy — no matter what stage — to a known abortion provider.

I want to put a new case before the house today, and that is the case of Dr K. He is a 32-year-old general practitioner who practises in two busy suburban practices in Melbourne, one of which is in your electorate of Mitcham, Acting Speaker.

I wish to highlight the fact that in 2011 Dr K participated in an online conversation about abortion on the social media site Facebook during which he stated that he was opposed to it and did not refer patients. There were four or five other participants in the conversation. A few weeks later Dr K received a letter from the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency which stated that the medical board was investigating him over his professional conduct after he was reported by one of the other Facebook correspondents.

Dr K states, and I quote:

There followed a 14-month investigation which was time consuming and stressful for me, and during which I was repeatedly taken away from my clinical duties to attend meetings with my lawyer and medical defence organisation. In January 2013 I endured a 70-minute face-to-face interrogation by the medical board. I was questioned by three members of the board, and though my lawyer was present he was not permitted to speak on my behalf or advise me during the hearing. My lawyer, who has assisted many doctors with the medical board, remarked to me afterwards that my hearing had ‘set a new record’ for duration, being more than twice the normal duration of hearings.

 The SARC review of the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 highlights the importance of the government examining this issue and coming back to the Parliament with a response.

Dr K goes on to state:

I am dismayed that I could be treated like this on account of remarks made in private conversation, and when no patient has ever complained to the board about way I have treated them. If a patient tells me they want an abortion, I politely explain that I cannot assist them because of my personal views, and advise that they must seek out a different doctor. This has happened quite a number of times over the years I have been in practice, and it has not led to any problems or complaints. Patients have always found their way to someone willing to help them with their requests.

Those colleagues to whom I have disclosed my experience have all been shocked at the way I was ‘hauled in’ by the board and disciplined. I now have to live with the constant anxiety that the next female patient I see will request an abortion, and the possibility that this may trigger yet another investigation by the board. With a wife and infant son to support I cannot afford to be suspended from practice.

The clinics for which I work and the hundreds of patients who I look after will be put in a very difficult situation if I am not able to practice.

 I draw the house’s attention to section 48 of the charter and section 8 of the Abortion Law Reform Act 2008.