Scott Morrison intervened when he was immigration minister to express his concerns about a late-term abortion that an asylum seeker was considering undergoing, Guardian Australia can reveal.
Morrison, now treasurer, made the move in the case of a woman who was 19 weeks pregnantin 2014.
The woman had been brought from Nauru to Brisbane two months earlier and had been found not fit to fly. The immigration department raised concerns she was delaying making a decision to avoid returning to Nauru, and believed she had never intended to have the procedure. As the pregnancy grew later without the woman making a decision, the minister then raised concerns about late-term procedures.
In a high-level brief by senior immigration staff, the department advised Morrison to leave the case to medical staff at the detention health provider International Health and Medical Services (IHMS).
But Morrison declined to take the advice and expressed some “pretty strong views about late-term procedures” which “restricted our options a lot”, according to a high-level official at the immigration department.
The claims are backed by sources involved in the decision making surrounding the woman’s case.
The revelations come amid growing concern about the department’s handling of the separate case of a Somali woman who was chartered back to Nauru after requesting a termination. The current immigration minister, Peter Dutton, said the woman had declined to have the procedure but the woman has denied saying she did not want it.
After Morrison’s intervention in the 2014 case, senior immigration officials asked IHMS to revise their clinical assessment of her fitness to fly.
A mental health assessment of the woman by a treating psychiatrist said there were “concerns that her mental state will seriously deteriorate when she is returned to Nauru”.
The assessment continued: “Conditions are not ideal. With the added stress of an advancing pregnancy she … may be at risk of acting on her suicidal thoughts.”
An immigration official then asked IHMS to re-examine the woman’s mental health assessment.
The same official said there had been a growing number of assessments that were recommending asylum seekers not be taken to Christmas Island or the regional processing centres and recommended they be placed in “less restrictive forms of detention”. The official warned IHMS this was growing more common in clinical assessments and was inconsistent with the government’s policy.
The asylum seeker deliberated for some time on whether or not to see her pregnancy through and had been in Brisbane for two months. The view within the immigration department was that she was delaying making a decision to prevent being returned to Nauru.
The immigration department and Morrison’s office were approached for comment on Monday afternoon, but have not responded.
A growing number of asylum seekers have been returned to the mainland over the past 18 months from Nauru and Manus Island owing to serious medical and psychological concerns. Some have sought and gained injunctions to prevent their removal back to offshore detention centres and a number have joined a major class action negligence action led by Maurice Blackburn lawyers.
Previously, the government had a policy of “routine transfers” to Australia of pregnant women at 28 weeks so they could give birth in Australian hospitals.
But in July, further documents from IHMS obtained by Guardian Australia revealed a change in policy that would send asylum seekers and refugees requiring advanced medical care to the Pacific International hospital in the Papua New Guinean capital, Port Moresby, and not to Australia.
Australia’s immigration detention system is unusual because the secretary of the department retains extraordinary powers to permit or refuse medical treatment, including those surrounding abortion procedures.
Although it is not common, the secretary could also be directed by the minister to take action in a particular case, which could include the exercise of the medical regulations.