Catholic midwives win legal right to avoid taking part in abortions
Conscientious objection upheld by appeal judges in landmark case
April 25, 2013
Two Roman Catholic midwives have won a long-running battle to avoid taking part in any element of abortion procedures in a case that could have implications for medical staff across the UK.
Midwifery sisters Mary Doogan, 58, and Concepta Wood, 52, claimed their right to conscientious objection should extend to refusing to delegate, supervise or support members of staff who were looking after women undergoing terminations.
They lost a previous case against NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde when the court ruled their human rights were not affected as they were not directly involved in the procedures.
The case - said in court to be important for hospitals throughout Britain - was brought as a judicial review against a decision by the health board and was rejected at the Court of Session in Edinburgh last year.
However, appeal judges have now overturned the ruling in favour of the midwives, who worked as labour ward co-ordinators at Glasgow’s Southern General Hospital.
Lady Dorrian, who heard the challenge with Lord Mackay of Drumadoon and Lord McEwan, said the right of conscientious objection should extend not only to the actual medical or surgical termination “but to the whole process of treatment given for that purpose”.
Miss Doogan and Mrs Wood, both from Glasgow, each have more than 20 years of experience and objected on religious grounds to participating in abortion procedures on the basis of their belief that the foetus has a right to life.
They issued a statement saying they were “absolutely delighted” by the judgement, adding: “In holding all life to be sacred from conception to natural death, as midwives we have always worked in the knowledge we have two lives to care for throughout labour; a mother and that of her unborn child.
“Today's judgement is a welcome affirmation of the rights of all midwives to withdraw from a practice that would violate their conscience and which over time, would indeed debar many from entering what has always been a very rewarding and noble profession.
“It is with great relief we can now return to considerations that are all to do with child birth and midwifery practice and less to do with legal matters.”
The pair set out their conscientious objection, under the 1967 Abortion Act, a number of years ago and claimed in court that before 2007 they were not called on to delegate, supervise or support staff dealing with abortions.
They said the health board then introduced changes that meant all patients undergoing medical terminations had to be treated and cared for in the labour ward, where they worked, rather than the gynaecology ward.
They claimed management later took the view that conscientious objectors were permitted to withdraw from administering abortion-inducing drugs, but were required to provide care for patients.
Lady Smith, who heard the initial case, said in her judgement last year that they were “not being asked to play any direct role in bringing about terminations of pregnancy".
The women appealed and their counsel Gerry Moynihan QC told the appeal court that, as part of a team, their right to conscientious objection extended to all duties.
He added that because the midwives let the board know of their objection in advance, it could have managed its staff to respect their rights.
Mr Moynihan told the court: “The administrative convenience of the health board is irrelevant because the right is a balance between facilitating abortion while respecting the genuine conscientious objection of medical, nursing and ancillary staff."
Brian Napier QC, for the health board, argued that having responsibility for a managerial, supervisory or support role did not of itself trigger the right to conscientious objection. The health board said it would be considering its options.
The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, which backed the midwives, said the outcome was a “tremendous victory” for two devoted and caring women.
Paul Tully, the society’s general secretary, added: “This outcome will be a great relief to all midwives, nurses and doctors who may be under pressure to supervise abortion procedures and who are wondering whether the law protects their right to opt out.
“The difference this judgment makes is that hospital managers must recognise that the legal right to opt out of abortion goes beyond those who directly undertake abortions.”
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