Medical professionals concerned their ethical rights may be eroded by health reforms

The New Zealand Medical Council says it’s ‘up to the challenge’ of three controversial law changes currently before Parliament.

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A new euthanasia law along with changes to cannabis and abortion legislation are all before Parliament. Source: 1 NEWS

A new law enabling the terminally ill to access assisted dying, along with reform to cannabis and abortion laws, has sparked widespread and sometimes heated public debate.

“I think these (proposals) represent a potential challenge to the medical profession,” says Dr Curtis Walker, Chair of the NZ Medical Council. “But I know the medical profession is up to it.”

Health lawyer Holly Hedley says it’s a lot of change for the profession to deal with in the same timeframe.

“There's reform all the time in health law but usually it's incremental,” Ms Hedley says. “This level of three significant changes, particularly end of life and abortion laws - that's huge, it's big, it's unusual.”

Some doctors are concerned that proposed changes could affect their right to conscientious objection which currently offer wide scope to New Zealand medical professionals.

The issue was raised by a number of doctors at Select Committee hearing on Abortion Reform earlier this month.

“Even if it is documented that you object, a junior doctor would be viewed as being difficult and may be backed into a corner to comply in order to comply or appease senior doctors,” paediatrician Aimee Kettoola said in her submission to the Committee.

An Associate Professor of Bioethics at Otago University, Angela Ballantyne, says debates about the scope of conscientious objection are occurring in many parts of the world including Australia and the United Kingdom.

Ms Ballantyne says it’s because these countries are also looking at controversial issues like euthanasia and abortion and clarification of conscientious objection is needed.

Ms Ballantyne says any medical objection must be weighed against a patient’s rights to access services.

The NZ Medical Council believes when legislation is finalised health professionals will be equipped to balance their ethical rights with their medical obligations.

Dr Walker says doctors face difficult situations every day and will face any new challenges in the same way.