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Advising patients on abortion — medical duty or moral conscience?

A medical professional faces charges of allegedly trying to dissuade a patient from terminating a pregnancy. Fikile-Ntiskelelo Moya examines how the conflict between moral conscience and the professional duty of care poses challenges for religious freedom and a pro-life stance.

The South African National Defence Force recently was in the news for issuing disciplinary measures against a Muslim woman who refused to remove her headscarf following a direct order by her commander.

This week, the media is reporting on a Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) case of unprofessional conduct against a medical intern who allegedly tried to dissuade a patient from terminating her pregnancy in 2016, on grounds that her actions constituted the killing of an unborn human being.

The intersection of moral consciousness, religious belief, freedom of choice, and the duty of care reveals the complexity of taking a pro-life stance in the medical profession.

A lack of clarity

Jacques de Vos (32) was charged with disrespecting the dignity of the patient and using emotive language to discourage the patient from going ahead with the abortion. He was a week short of completing the gynaecological section of his internship and beginning his community service year.

De Vos’s lawyer, Advocate Keith Matthee, told TimesLive that his client had “struggled to have his internship documents signed off due to the charges he has been facing for the past two years”.

De Vos “struggled to have his internship documents signed off due to the charges he has been facing for the past two years”.

Matthee said that the HPCSA had not given his client all the particulars related to the case. Matthee told Eye Witness News that information around how far advanced the pregnancy was and the patient’s final decision is “ambiguous” and that De Vos’s charge sheet is also not clear on the nature of his interaction with the patient.

He added that the defence will “be rooted in science” and not religious belief.

Are religious rights under attack?

It might be a little alarmist to say religious rights in South Africa are under attack, but it does raise some issues of concern.

While it is not evident whether De Vos’s actions were informed by his religious views, this case may have implications for those who oppose the termination of pregnancy on moral and religious grounds.

The outcomes of this case could send a message to medical personnel, especially newly qualified doctors, that they may be targeted if they speak out about their moral objections to performing abortions or counselling their patients who are considering an abortion.

In terms of the Termination of Pregnancy Act, the Department of Health has a duty to provide abortions free of charge at certain medical facilities. Medical personnel have a right to object to performing an abortion, but they are obligated to refer the patient to another medical practitioner. This does not come without its practical difficulties, given the distance and the availability of medical facilities outside of the large urban areas.

… striking the balance between a personal pro-life stance and the duty of care as provided by South Africa law, can be difficult.

The legislation is less specific on what can be said in counselling to women who are seeking an abortion. Common sense dictates that any counselling should be objective and free from personal and religious beliefs. However, striking the balance between a personal pro-life stance and the duty of care as provided by South Africa law, can be difficult.

Being pro-life in these circumstances is not easy and continues to generate controversy in South Africa and around the world. More than ever, this calls for medical professionals to fully understand their legal responsibilities and the moral teaching of their respective faiths as they take their stance of conscience.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

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Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya
Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is an independent journalist and former editor of The Mercury, The Witness and Sowetan and a senior journalist at many other mainstream South African newspapers.

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