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Holly Walker - Not pregnant, Dunedin

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Contraceptive conundrum

This morning I heard Linda Clark's interview (audio not up yet) with Dr Joseph Hassan, the Catholic GP who has decided to stop prescribing contraception to his patients because of his religious beliefs, and have been discussing the issue with some of my learned colleagues who should probably be studying for their university exams, but who are instead hanging out with me in the Critic office (because it's such a cool place to be). The general consensus is that this is a very tricky issue, with some seriously worrying consequences.

Obviously, Dr Hassan would like every facet of his life, including his work life, to be in harmony with his religious beliefs, and this is a right most people in New Zealand can enjoy without too many problems. For most of his career, Dr Hassan has been prescribing contraception and making referrals for abortions against his better judgement, but for whatever reason he has now decided he can no longer do so. It cuts too deeply against the grain of his strongly held convictions. Yet many of his patients will not share these convictions. When Dr Hassan's desire to live in accordance with his beliefs begins to impact on the ability of his patients to access contraception / be referred for an abortion / request a sterilisation - major life decisions - whose rights should prevail?

Apparently, if there are alternative services available to his patients, there is nothing wrong with Dr Hassan's stance. His patients may go elsewhere - to Family Planning or another GP. He may even point them in the right direction. Luckily, Dr Hassan is based in Nelson, where there are alternatives available, but if an isolated rural GP was to make the same decision, it might well be a different story. It remains to be seen what would happen in such a case, but it is not an easy one. Surely the rural GP would have the same right to religious expression as Dr Hassan? It would be very odd if city GPs were to be allowed to take such stands, but rural GPs were not.

Forcing patients to go elsewhere is also not ideal - they may not feel comfortable discussing such issues with someone other than their trusted family doctor, and there could very likely be impacts on teen pregnancy, as some have claimed. Sure, most savvy teenagers these days know about Family Planning, but what if you were a 16 year old girl who couldn't imagine talking about these issues with a stranger, finally built up the courage to ask your GP, and were rubuffed because of his religious beliefs. Does the doctor in this case not have more of a responsibility to your wellbeing than to simply turn you away?

And then, no matter how nicely it was explained, would you not feel like your doctor was judging and disapproving of your lifestyle if you were refused access to contraceptive services? Would that not inhibit your ability to speak freely to him about other lifestyle-related health issues? What if you were a Catholic who had reconciled yourself to the use of contraception despite your faith? You're supposed to be going to the doctor, not confession.

This case sets a dangerous precedent in a number of regards, not only from the perspective of the patient, but also for rural doctors who may not be afforded the same luxury of religious expression as others. I can't help but feel Dr Hassan's stance is a more than a little irresponsible.