PUBLIC hospital staff have a ``cultural fear'' of performing abortions that bears little relationship to the legal reality, a former chief executive of the Royal Hobart Hospital has said.
Department of Health and Human Services deputy secretary Michael Pervan, who headed the state's largest hospital between 2008 and 2010, told a parliamentary committee into a proposal to decriminalise abortion that despite efforts to reassure staff that they were protected from prosecution under the current legislation, many were still reluctant to assist in the procedure.
And Mr Pervan said he was not sure that decriminalising abortion, as proposed in the Reproductive Health Bill, would resolve the issue.
``I call it a cultural fear because when I discussed it with the staff who were raising these concerns, no one could bring it back to a prosecution they were aware of or even someone being spoken to by police,'' Mr Pervan said.
``Yet they were all acutely aware of this provision in the Criminal Code relating to abortion and the penalties that applied.''
The existing exemptions under the Criminal Code to allow abortion were enacted in 2002, after a complaint from a medical student sparked a police investigation into the Royal Hobart Hospital for what were then called ``unlawful'' terminations.
Mr Pervan said the concern was mainly prevalent among nursing staff.
He told MLCs yesterday that Tasmania's public health system had terminated between 70 and 80 pregnancies a year - mostly early term - and another 30 had been terminated by private hospitals.
A spokeswoman for one of Hobart's private abortion clinics said the number of terminations performed in that sector was between 1200 and 1500.
Mr Pervan said a directive from Health Minister Michelle O'Byrne, who sponsors the proposed legislation, was all that was needed to increase the number of abortions performed in public hospitals, but he would like to see a broader obstetric plan.
Hospitals were necessary for late-term procedures but were otherwise not an ideal place to have a termination, because a woman who had recently had a late-term termination was likely to be alongside new mothers with babies. ``I don't think that many people comprehend the trauma involved in these cases, and it's not the job of the public system to make that trauma worse,'' he said.