The UK’s highest court has overturned a ruling that two Catholic midwives should play no part in abortion procedures.
Five justices at the Supreme Court in London allowed an appeal by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde against a decision by the Court of Session in Edinburgh last year, in the case of Mary Doogan and Connie Wood.
As conscientious objectors, the senior midwifery sisters have had no direct role in pregnancy terminations, but claimed they were entitled to refuse to delegate, supervise and support staff involved in the procedures or providing care to patients during the process.
Court of Session judges ruled that 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”.
But the health board argued that conscientious objection is a right only to refuse to take part in activities that directly bring about the termination of a pregnancy. Yesterday Lady Hale, Lord Wilson, Lord Reed, Lord Hughes and Lord Hodge unanimously allowed the appeal.
NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde welcomed the decision, but the Archbishop of Glasgow, Philip Tartaglia, said he was “dismayed and disappointed” by the ruling.
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Last April’s appeal victory for the two women followed a ruling against them in 2012 in their action against the health board.
The women were employed as labour ward co-ordinators at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow. At the time of the original ruling, Ms Doogan had been absent from work due to ill-health since March 2010 and Ms Wood had been transferred to other work.
Announcing the court’s decision, deputy president Lady Hale said of Ms Doogan and Ms Wood, who are both in their fifties: “Both are practising Roman Catholics who believe that human life is sacred from the moment of conception and that termination of pregnancy is a grave offence against human life.
“They also believe that any involvement in the process of termination renders them accomplices to and culpable for that grave offence.”
The case was about the “precise scope” of the right of conscientious objection to taking part in abortion.
The only question for the court was one of “pure statutory construction” – the meaning of the words “to participate in any treatment authorised by this [abortion] Act”.
Lady Hale said that “participate” in her view meant taking part in a “hands-on capacity”.
The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) and British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) said they intervened in the case because they believed “such a broad and unprecedented interpretation of conscientious objection, applicable across the UK, would effectively have enabled a tiny number of staff opposed to abortion to make women’s care undeliverable in many NHS settings”.
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.”
But Archbishop Tartaglia said: “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.
“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.”
A spokesman for NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde said the health board was “pleased” with the court’s decision.
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