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Midwives’ abortion ruling overturned by Supreme Court


In December 2014 the UK's highest court told two Catholic midwives that they do not have the right to avoid supervising other nurses involved in abortion procedures. 1


The landmark judgement by the five Supreme Court justices rejected the view that the right of conscience extended to the whole process of abortion. It ruled instead that conscientious objection only applied where an individual was “taking part in a hands-on capacity”. 2


Background to the case

Mary Doogan and Connie Wood were employed as Labour Ward Coordinators at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow. They were concerned that the reorganisation of maternity services would result in an increased number of abortions being carried out on the labour ward, and that their objections to playing any part at all in these procedures would not be respected and accommodated.  The outstanding issue was their continued objection to “delegating, supervising and/or supporting staff to participate in and provide care to patients throughout the termination process.” 3


However the health board maintained that the Abortion Act 1967 did not give the midwives any right to refuse to delegate, support or supervise staff providing nursing care for women going through abortions.


The first Court ruling had found in favour of the Trust but this had been overturned by the Scottish Court of Appeal which had ruled that the midwives’ right to conscientious objection meant they could refuse to delegate, supervise or support staff involved in abortions stating, “In our view the right of conscientious objection extends not only to the actual medical or surgical termination but to the whole process of treatment given for that purpose,” 4 and added, “The right is given because it is recognised that the process of abortion is felt by many people to be morally repugnant.”


The Trust duly appealed this, sending the case to the UK Supreme Court, which has now upheld their appeal against the Scottish Court ruling.


Reaction

Paul Tully, general secretary of Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) which paid the midwives’ legal expenses throughout the case, said, “SPUC  acknowledges the great debt that the whole pro-life community owes to Mary Doogan and Connie Wood for fighting this battle over the past seven years. … We are bitterly disappointed for them…..Today's decision sadly makes it likely that senior midwives who refuse to kill babies will be forced to leave the profession.”


Mary Doogan and Connie Wood, the midwives in the case, commented on the judgment, “We are both saddened and extremely disappointed with today's verdict from the Supreme Court and can only imagine the subsequent detrimental consequences that will result from today's decision on staff of conscience throughout the UK.” 5


Philippa Taylor, Head of Public Policy at Christian Medical Fellowship comments, “Freedom of conscience is not a minor or peripheral issue. It goes to the heart of medical practice as a moral activity. The right of conscience helps to preserve the moral integrity of the individual clinician, preserves the distinctive characteristics and reputation of nursing and midwifery as a profession, acts as a safeguard against coercive state power, and provides protection from discrimination for those with minority ethical beliefs. There are plenty of notorious examples of the moral corruption of a medical profession where freedom of conscience has been ignored or forbidden. 6


“And to ‘participate’ should not just involve direct action. Many would consider that a referral is participating in abortion. If I do not physically take part in a robbery, but knowingly provide the thieves with information or equipment to enable them to perform the crime, or provide the getaway car or help conceal or dispose of the loot, I should be guilty under the law as if I had been on the premises myself.


“It is only because abortion is regarded as mundane and routine in Britain that a case like this does not generate huge public outrage and concern. But that reveals as much about the weakened conscience of the British public as it does about the morality of abortion.” 7