18 December 2014
UK: Scottish midwives ruling clarifies scope of conscientious objection
The UK’s Supreme Court has ruled that two Catholic midwives do not have the right to refuse to help other nurses with abortion procedures or planning.
Upholding an appeal by Greater Glasgow health board, the court found that Mary Doogan, 58, and Concepta Wood, 52, who worked as labour ward co-ordinators at the southern general hospital in Glasgow, did not have a legal right to object to helping with abortions in any way.
As conscientious objectors, the senior midwives have had no direct role in pregnancy terminations, but they argued that they should also be entitled to refuse to delegate, supervise and support staff involved in the procedures or providing care to patients during the process.
Reproductive rights campaigners were concerned that a decision by the court of session in Edinburgh in favour of the women’s case last year could have wide-ranging implications for the way the NHS dealt with other health staff who opposed abortions on religious grounds, the Guardian reports.
The judgement centred on the scope of the right to conscientious objection under the Abortion Act 1967, which says: “No person shall be under any duty ... to participate in any treatment authorised by this Act to which he has a conscientious objection.” Explaining their decision to uphold the appeal against the 2013 ruling, the Supreme Court judges said parliament was likely to have envisaged that right to object as being restricted to “actually taking part, that is actually performing that tasks involved in the course of treatment.”
Lady Hale, Deputy President of the court, said:
“Parliament will not have had in mind the hospital managers who decide to offer an abortion service, the administrators who decide how best that service can be organised within the hospital, the caterers who provide the patients with food and the cleaners who provide them with a safe and hygienic environment. Yet all may be said in some way to be facilitating the carrying out of the treatment involved. The managerial and supervisory tasks carried out by the labour ward co-ordinators are closer to these roles than they are to the role of providing the treatment which brings about the termination of the pregnancy. “Participate” in my view means taking part in a “hands-on” capacity.”
The Royal College of Midwives (RCM)and bpas intervened in the case. Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said:
“We welcome this ruling. bpas supports the right to refuse to work in abortion care, not least because women deserve better than being treated by those who object to their choice. But the law as it stands already provides healthcare workers with these protections. Extending this protection to tasks not directly related to the abortion would be to the detriment of women needing to end a pregnancy and the healthcare staff committed to providing that care. There are enough barriers in the way of women who need an abortion without further obstacles being thrown in their way.”
Gillian Smith, RCM Director for Scotland, said:
“This ruling is sensible and both women and midwives will welcome it. The ruling gives extensive definition to complex clinical and other situations, in regard to whether conscientious objection applies or not. Midwives and other clinicians will benefit from this ruling’s clarity and women will be able to continue to exercise their choice over their reproductive rights.”
The most senior Catholic in Glasgow, archbishop Philip Tartaglia, expressed his “dismay and disappointment” at the supreme court judgement, insisting that the case was neither about abortion nor religion, the Guardian reports.
“I am dismayed and disappointed at this decision of the supreme court which fundamentally impacts on the right of every citizen in this country to follow their conscience in the workplace,” he said. “This was never a case about the rights and wrongs of abortion. Nor was it a case about religion. Rather it was a case which centred on the right of ordinary citizens to have their conscience respected in society and at work. All of society is a poorer, less respectful and less tolerant place as a result of this decision.”
Catholic midwives’ abortion ruling overturned by supreme court. Guardian, 17 December 2014
RCM and bpas welcome Scottish midwives ruling. BPAS, 17 December 2014