The Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, has threatened that Catholic hospitals could be forced to close emergency and maternity wards if a proposed bill to decriminalise abortion is passed.
The bill was passed unamended in the state's Lower House on September 12, and will be debated in the Upper House in early October.
A clause of the bill states that health professionals with a "conscientious objection" to abortion must refer patients to another doctor. Hart claims that Catholic doctors will be unable to comply with this rule.
Greens MLC Colleen Hartland told Green Left Weekly that "this is simply a tactic to attempt to stymie the abortion bill. ... Many of the big Catholic hospitals are already making referrals.
"If Archbishop Hart is claiming that Catholic health professionals would not ... perform abortions in an emergency, it begs the question: if a woman with an ectopic pregnancy [presented], would they put her life in danger by refusing to treat her, or referring her to another hospital?"
Hartland expressed concern that the bill could fail in the politically conservative Upper House. "The level of harassment from the anti-choice lobby has been very extreme and vicious. There are significant challenges for the pro-choice movement.
"But we can't afford to be complacent ... If the decriminalisation bill fails, all it would take is an anti-abortion government, Commissioner of Police or Attorney-General to see massive attacks on women's reproductive rights", she said.
Robyn Gregory, CEO of Women's Health West, told GLW: "The decriminalisation bill does not require Catholic hospitals to perform abortions, simply to refer on to another health provider if a patient is seeking an abortion", Gregory said. She expressed concern for women living in rural areas, where the only doctor may be a Catholic with a conscientious objection to abortion. Such women may not be informed of all their options.
"We are strongly encouraging our members and colleagues to contact their MPs, and ask them to cast a conscience vote that reflects community opinion, that protects women and advocates decriminalisation. Where public money is supporting hospitals, then the services need to reflect the needs and interests of the population", Gregory said.
Margarita Windisch, the Socialist Alliance candidate in the upcoming Maribyrnong Council elections, told GLW: "this is basically an attempt at blackmail by the Catholic Church hierarchy and anti-choice lobbyists and it shows how out of touch they are with community opinion.
"The vast majority of the population, including the majority of Catholics, support the right of women to choose. If Catholic-run public hospitals refuse to give women truthful information about their reproduction choices, then they should be taken over and run as secular public hospitals", Windisch said.
[A rally for abortion rights has been called for October 4. See calendar on page 23 for details.]