The New Online Pill Service Might Help Circumvent The Religious Discrimination Bill
Right now, if you want to, you can jump online, fill out a questionnaire, exchange some text messages with a doctor and pay to get the pill delivered to your door every four weeks.
It seems ingenious, and in some circumstances it probably is.
‘Contraception admin’ is a term coined to describe the time, money and thought that goes into managing if and when you decide to have children -- and it’s an admin mostly borne by women. A service like this appears to make the whole process a lot easier.
With a dangerous religious discrimination bill seemingly days away from being tabled (and let’s face it, probably passed) in Parliament, services like this may also become necessary.
If this bill passes in its current state, any doctor or pharmacist can refuse to provide the oral contraceptive pill, morning after pill, abortions (and abortion referrals), IVF and any other medical advice or referrals if the service or procedure conflicts with their religious beliefs unless declining the service would cause an "unjustifiable adverse impact" on the patient.
(In the bill's explanatory notes, the government suggests that, in the case of a small town where there's only one doctor, this may qualify as an unjustifiable adverse impact because getting the service would require a lot more time and money.)
There are a number of issues at play here; one is that realistically, the pill (the most common form of contraception used by women in Australia) adjusts your hormones -- which is a big deal, medically.
It’s also useful for a number of health issues outside of contraception -- for example, I have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and have in the past used the pill to treat the condition. I have also been made incredibly sick by the WRONG pill, meaning that I needed in-person medical care from my GP-- not an exchange of text messages between me and any number of potential clinicians. Online pill services would have a hard time allowing for this.
But most concerningly, while it is good that online pill services exist, we can’t look past or underplay the potential threat to contraception that the religious discrimination bill presents.
Its possible passing -- and, indeed, even the fact that it's been proposed -- sends the message that women are not allowed the agency to decide if or when they have children. Women are limited in their ability to have sex and expect to be safe. Women are limited in their access to health care for medical conditions relating to our sexual and reproductive health (like my PCOS) without having the treatment labelled a ‘lifestyle choice’ that doctors should be able to choose to ignore if it disagrees with the Bible in their bedside table.
If your religious beliefs impede your ability to do your job, and your job is to provide health care in a country with a robust, hypothetically non-secular public health system, then maybe you should pick another profession.
Someone’s health and well-being, and particularly someone’s sexual health and well-being, is a sensitive topic that demands a level of care that is non-judgmental, accessible, kind and holistic. If your religious beliefs prevent you from being able to provide that, then don’t be a doctor. The only religious beliefs that belong in the practice room are the religious beliefs held by the patient. If you want to preach, become a pastor.
“As a society we should be tackling discrimination, but what is proposed in the religious discrimination bill is likely to have perverse effects," Jamal Hakim, Managing Director of Marie Stopes Australia, told me. "From a reproductive health perspective it seeks to undermine important gains such as safe access zones outside abortion clinics, the right to information about pregnancy options and the right to access health care without the personal judgment of another getting in the way.”
This bill is irresponsible. It is dangerous. And it could cement archaic religious beliefs and practices that discriminate against women -- even women who aren’t religious. We are not legislating for religious freedom here -- we are legislating to allow others to force their religious beliefs onto others. And in the doctor’s office, of all places.
Contraception is not a lifestyle choice. It is a necessary medical treatment that can have serious side effects. Health care practitioners are decidedly split on the issue, but based on my own experience, I believe it is risky for women to be able to access hormonal contraception without a doctor’s consultation (though I certainly acknowledge that many women are able to take it with no issues).
However, I do believe that women should be able to access contraception freely without shame, judgment or questioning. And if an online pill service is the only way we can ensure that for all women in Australia, then we need to rethink the role of religion in the doctor’s office -- fast.