The passage of legislation which legalises abortion in Victoria is a major threat to the future of the Catholic hospital system in Victoria.
The Bill was introduced by the Brumby Labor Government which will now be directly responsible for the consequences of its legislation.
The gravity of the threat to Catholic hospitals was referred to by Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne, in a pastoral letter issued on 19 September.
In it, Archbishop Hart said, 'Catholic hospitals and the large number of Victorians they serve are also in a vulnerable position.
'Catholic hospitals will not perform abortions and will not provide referrals for the purpose of abortion. If this provision is passed, it will be an outrageous attack on our service to the community and contrary to Catholic ethical codes.
'It will leave Catholic hospitals and doctors with a conscientious objection to abortion in a position where they will be acting contrary to the law if they act in accordance with their deeply held moral convictions.
'This Bill poses a real threat to the continued existence of Catholic hospitals. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to foresee how Catholic hospitals could continue to operate maternity or emergency departments in this state in their current form.
'This is a significant issue for the community at large having regard to the fact that Catholic hospitals account for approximately one- third of all births and are seen by many as their hospitals of choice.'
In a personal letter to the Upper House MPs, Archbishop Hart raised other problems. 'The Bill,' he said, 'makes a mockery of the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and the Equal Opportunity Act. This is clearly intended to have the effect of requiring Catholic hospitals to permit referrals for abortions.'
In the lead-up to the Upper House debate there were unprecedented displays of community opposition with thousands of Victorians gathering on four occasions on the steps of parliament. The first Freedom to be Born rally attracted over 2,000, the Young Victorians for Life prayer vigil attracted over 200, the ecumenical hour of prayer at St Patrick's Cathedral attracted over 3,000 and the prayer/protest on the steps of parliament saw another 2,500 protestors.
The Protestant churches, which organised the 2,500 strong prayer/ protest, included one speaker who praised the Catholic Church for its unwavering and strong stance against the crime of abortion, while also regretting the past apathy of many Protestants.
The opposition to the bill has also brought together Catholics and Muslims in protest. Some Catholics took time out to visit Mosques distributing information about the bill. As a result a protest and petition was organised and it was reported, 'a petition by 500 Muslims opposing the new abortion [bill] would be presented to parliament' (Brimbank Leader, 7 October 2008).
Contrary to government claims, the bill goes further than the 'current practice' and is against the general community's wish for fewer abortions as it legitimises a far more liberal approach.
Retired lawyer Charles Francis AM QC, after analysing the bill, commented 'in reality, in Victoria, we will have abortion on demand at any time during pregnancy.'
In fact, in this bill, a woman could buy a drug from her local pharmacy to cause the induced miscarriage of a baby of any gestation.
Outspoken pro-life politicians have provided some necessary leadership, hope and inspiration for the thousands of disgusted Victorians looking for some moral strength and common sense in parliament. Yet other Victorian MPs said they were 'practising' Christians and morally opposed to abortion, yet gave their full support to the bill!
In a message sent from the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal George Pell expressed his concern that 'the Bill has the potential to create a dangerous precedent for legislators across Australia.'
Cardinal Pell reaffirmed that 'every human being has the inherent right to life. There is no right to the destruction of innocent persons and our community should be offering vulnerable pregnant women much more than simply an increasing number of ever more accessible ways in which their unborn children can be killed'.
He added, 'The rights of free- dom of thought, conscience, religion and belief are fundamental. The ability to exercise conscientious objection is a keystone of democracy.
'All of us should have the right to hold a belief and not be compelled by the state to act contrary to that conviction. It is the difference between the free society and the one subject to tyranny.
'That conscientious objection is a fundamental human right is expressly recognised in similar legislation in various jurisdictions both overseas, as in the UK and New Zealand, and also domestically.
'If enacted, it may well fall to the Courts or the Federal Government to act, particularly if it is demonstrated that the final legislation breaches international treaties to which Australia is a signatory.'