“The primary aim of the bill is to prohibit religious discrimination; however, even with the recent
amendments, there remains a range of exemptions that will allow discrimination to continue and
healthcare to potentially be adversely impacted,” the organisations claim in a letter submitted to federal Attorney-General Christian Porter on Wednesday.
“Many people who use health and community services are at risk of having their rights denied or disrespected. Laws that privilege religious views over patient health are unacceptable.”
Under the proposed laws, health practitioners can conscientiously object to any procedure on religious grounds, as long as it’s a procedure and not a person they are objecting to.
Mr Porter rejected claims the bill prioritised religious views over patient health.
“The bill simply takes the uncontroversial position that, on their own, mere written or spoken words are not discrimination — provided they express genuine religious beliefs and are stated in a way that is not malicious and does not harass, vilify, threaten, intimidate or urge criminal offences,” Mr Porter said.
He said the proposed bill protected existing abilities of doctors and medical professionals to conscientiously object.
Doctors in Victoria already have the right to refuse to refer patients for abortions or euthanasia, although both services are legal in the state.
The head of contraception and abortion services at the Royal Women’s Hospital, Dr Paddy Moore, said the bill would be a huge step backwards for sexual and reproductive rights and diminish steps taken to decriminalise abortion.
“It is absolutely vital that women and girls, especially in regional and rural areas, are able to speak to their doctor about contraception and also about an unwanted pregnancy and access the quality care they need,” she said. “This is fundamental in ensuring women and girls have autonomy over their bodies and future.”
Earlier this year, the Torquay Medical Health and Wellbeing Clinic came under scrutiny after a doctor refused to prescribe contraception or give IVF or abortion referrals.
The government has not yet secured consensus among faith groups and the draft bill is opposed by the Australian Medical Association and Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
The signed statement by Victorian community health providers comes a day after the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the Australian Industry Group said the government’s bill was “confusing, inappropriate and unfair”.
The employer peak body and unions warned on Monday that it could also damage workplace harmony and pit employees from different backgrounds against each other at work.
Mr Porter said, however, it was”very clear” that its protections would not apply to anyone who was engaged in bullying, intimidation or harassment, and promised further consultation before introducing the bill into Parliament.
The government is expected to finalise the proposed legislation by March.
Melissa Cunningham is The Age’s health reporter.