We recently shared an article written by a Queensland midwife who has been grappling with changes to her job after abortion law in the state changed late last year. While she has the right to conscientious objection, she has already faced difficult situations where her primary desire to uphold and save life has been challenged by a new provision to remove life in the public health system, no questions asked, up to 22 weeks. Women can also have abortions to term in Queensland with the sign-off of two doctors.
You were outraged by her story. Nearly 500 of you shared it on Facebook alone, where the article reached more than 26,000 people.
Importantly, many of you – nurses, midwives, pharmacists – shared your own experiences of feeling pressured to take part in abortion practices, outside of what your conscience allows. Yes, we’re told that medical professionals have a right to conscientious objection, but the reality seems to be very different.
What the authorities said
We were curious.
So, we contacted some of the authorities whose job it is to protect the interests of midwives and nurses: the Australian Nursing & Midwifery Federation (the peak union for nurses and midwives), and the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia (nurses and midwives must be registered with the NMBA and meet the NMBA’s professional standards in order to practise in Australia).
The responses were one and the same, pointing to the NMBA’s code of conduct, section 4.4, which reads:
“Midwives must responsibly use their right to not provide, or participate directly in, treatments to which they have a conscientious objection. In such a situation, midwives must respectfully inform the woman, their employer and other relevant colleagues, of their objection and ensure the woman has alternative care options.”
(The code of conduct reads exactly the same for nurses.)
We have some questions
This is national law here. And that’s great to hear, that nurses and midwives do have their right to conscientious objection enshrined in law. However… what happens when there are no “alternative care options” available? What happens if most or all midwives rostered for a shift involving a late-term abortion have a conscientious objection? (It’s a ‘what-if’ that does happen, as we have heard anecdotally!) And what about the nuances of the workplace situation? The fact that a midwife who objects must make his or her objection known to each patient, colleague and employer. How does that affect their opportunities in the workplace? Will their rostering start to reflect their objection to taking part in abortion procedures? Will they be discriminated against based on their ethical stance? Indeed, will their registration be jeopardised if they cannot, as the code states, provide those “alternative care options”?
A spokesperson from the NMBA gave this answer:
“Where a National Board receives a notification that alleges a breach of standards of professional conduct, it will consider the matter and may investigate and depending on the risk and evidence, may take regulatory action… Individual practitioners should always obtain their own independent legal advice.”
Looking to Queensland
In Queensland last year, prior to the law change that now allows abortion to term in the state, Nurses Professional Association of Queensland (a non-party political union) executive director Graeme Haycroft expressed concern that the code of conduct does not protect nurses and midwives from discrimination or, in some cases, participation against their will.
“…the conscientiously objecting nurse must then ensure that the person/patient has alternative care options. So how do they do that in practice if half of their colleagues hold the same view? The alternative care options may not be readily available. The right to conscientious objection could well also be lost and the nurse bound by the common law to proceed anyway,” he said.
And today, he reaffirmed those concerns.
“Looking to the code won’t help them at all.”
From the mouths of midwives and health workers
Here are some of the anecdotal accounts that have been shared with us. We have withheld all identities as many expressed fear that sharing their concerns publicly would jeopardise their employment.
“I’m a midwife in a hospital in a small regional town, and when I went to my managers and said I can’t participate in pregnancy terminations, I was told that it is part of my job as their employee. They said if I refuse, I am taking away the choice of women and my role as a midwife is to provide woman-centred care.I then checked my code of ethics and code of professional conduct and found I am supposed to be able to choose not to participate in procedures which might go against strong personal values. But that’s definitely not what my managers told me.It is a difficult situation because there is nowhere else a midwife can work in my area. So at the moment I’m laying low and trying not to ruffle feathers because I need my job, and I love my job! But it grieves me deeply that this is also part of the job of a midwife. I have held a baby who was aborted in my hands while she gasped for breath and I was not allowed to do anything to help her live because the parents didn’t want to risk that she might be disabled. This will never leave me.Being forced to see and be a part of this kind of thing and yet do nothing makes me feel like an accomplice. I feel like a murderer because I have to stand by and do nothing to save these precious babies. I tell you this in confidence – it’s been made very clear to me that I can’t post anything on social media that does not support the procedures and practice of my workplace. Something feels so very wrong about this.”
“So much pressure to make this acceptable, and in the heat of it all it’s so hard to stand up for what we believe. As a midwife we even have policies lying around our staff rooms at the moment about what we post on social media. Basically Don’t have an opinion unless it supports currently accepted stuff!!! 😢”
“I wonder if the Nurses Union would defend any nurses if they refused to be involved with abortions or if the Union would defend the leftist ideology and the Labour Party which is behind abortion to birth. I suspect the nurse’s welfare would not be the Union’s priority. Would be interesting to ask the Union to comment. A few nurses I have spoken to have stated that they would fear for their jobs.”
“I am a pharmacist for the one place in my region approved to supply mifepristone (RU486). The pharmacy has to be approved but so does the supplying pharmacist. I have refused to do the training to get myself approved. I’m not a fan of the morning after pill but I absolutely won’t have blood on my hands from RU486.”
“No! Their job is to SAVE LIVES, not end them. As someone who is about to enter into midwifery (and who worked at hospitals already witnessing births) a midwife’s priority is mum and baby’s safety and health. They shed tears and work tirelessly to help sick babies and comfort a grieving mum and often go home and grieve themselves. They should not have to add on to this with everything their job stands against… I hope I will be able to refuse because this changes a lot of things and I honestly could not see myself working in the industry if I had to perform an abortion.”
“One of my friends in Albury did her nursing about 20 years ago now and they were wanting her to do/study abortions and she refused (she’s a Christian) and gave Biblical reasons why and they were skeptical but allowed her to not do that class (even though they said she’d probably not pass her nursing degree) and yet she passed and she’s an RN. So don’t be afraid to stand up for what is right when it comes to it.”