“Where the Catholics had Mother Mary as their guiding light, there will now be me, Rachel, Our Mother of Perpetual Misery.” This is how ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith was depicted in a satirical piece criticising the ACT Labor government’s acquisition of Calvary Public Hospital, which has been run by the Catholic organisation Little Company of Mary since it opened in 1979.
The acquisition follows a government-led inquiry into abortion and reproductive choice in the ACT, commissioned in July last year. The inquiry’s report, published in April, includes harrowing testimony of a woman who suffered painfully during a miscarriage. She was severely cramping but was advised upon admission to Calvary’s emergency department that the procedure she needed would not be performed because it was used for abortions. She instead had to pay $1,000 for the procedure at a private hospital. Calvary also refused to offer elective reproductive surgeries, including contraception and tubal ligation.
In 2021-22, the ACT government paid Little Company of Mary $261 million to run Calvary Public Hospital and Clare Holland House, a palliative care unit.
As a public hospital, Calvary was the default location for emergency treatment for Canberra’s northside. Two women lamented to Canberra Weekly that if they “get sick...the ambulance takes us to Calvary. We want health to be decided by health practitioners, not religious people.”
The government's acquisition of Calvary is a step forward for public health and abortion rights in the ACT. But the decision comes after years of Labor refusing to confront the Little Company of Mary. In 2010, former Chief Minister Katy Gallagher said that the ACT government would not compulsorily acquire Calvary because it “would cause a lot of conflict”.
The difference between then and now is the widespread public discussion around abortion sparked by the United States Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade. It is no longer tenable for the ACT government to fund a hospital that refuses to terminate pregnancies.
Last year, 2,000 people protested for abortion rights in Canberra. Shortly afterwards, ACT Labor announced abortions would be free. A surgical abortion used to cost at least $650 in Canberra, now it costs nothing. Medical abortions cost only $30 due to subsidies through the pharmaceutical benefits scheme.
While abortions are now free in the ACT, access remains an issue. Because of a lack of specialists, Canberrans can only access medical abortions up to nine weeks and surgical abortions up to sixteen weeks.
The political and religious right have turned the acquisition of Calvary into their cause célèbre to push for a religious discrimination act. Peter Dutton claimed the takeover was an “attack on religion”. Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn Christopher Prowse said the takeover was an act of religious discrimination.
The ACT Liberals ran a scare campaign in the lead-up to the takeover on 3 July, claiming the health system would see a mass exodus of workers. However, 95 percent of the hospital’s 1,800 staff will remain. Despite the Liberals’ cynical arguments, the sector is indeed under strain. Labor, in power since 2001, has systematically underfunded and understaffed Canberra’s healthcare system. Consequently, the ACT has the country's longest emergency department wait times.
Free abortions and the acquisition of Calvary are two important steps forward against the bigoted practices of the religious right. But much more needs to be done to improve the quality of healthcare in the ACT.