Catholic midwives win abortions appeal ruling

TWO ROMAN Catholic midwives have won a historic ruling from appeal judges in Edinburgh to avoid any participation in abortions.
Midwife Mary Doogan, along with Connie Wood, today won an historic appeal ruling. Picture: Dan PhillipsMidwife Mary Doogan, along with Connie Wood, today won an historic appeal ruling. Picture: Dan Phillips
Midwife Mary Doogan, along with Connie Wood, today won an historic appeal ruling. Picture: Dan Phillips

Mary Doogan, 58, and Connie Wood, 52, said they are “absolutely delighted” by the judgement which they described as a “welcome affirmation of the rights of all midwives to withdraw from a practice that would violate their conscience.”

The two women held supervisory positions in the labour ward of Glasgow’s Southern General Hospital and played no direct role in terminations, but objected to even having to delegate and support staff who were involved with patients.

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However, the hospital management insisted that a conscientious objection clause in the 1967 Abortion Act applied only to active participation in a termination and did not cover the women’s duties to delegate, supervise and support staff.

Last year, Miss Doogan and Mrs Wood, both of Glasgow, took the issue to court, with financial support from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. The Court of Session in Edinburgh heard that the case had important repercussions for hospitals throughout the United Kingdom.

Lady Smith refused their petition for a judicial review of the decision of NHS Greater Glasgow Health Board. However the appeal judges ruled for the midwives.

In a statement the pair said: “Connie and I are absolutely delighted with today’s judgement from the Court of Session, which recognises and upholds our rights as labour ward midwifery sisters to withdraw from participating in any treatment that would result in medical termination of pregnancy.

“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 the practice that would violate the 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.”

Last year Lady Smith said the 1967 Act allowed only qualified conscientious objection.

“Here, (Miss Doogan and Mrs Wood) are being protected from having any direct involvement with the procedure to which they object. Nothing they have to do as part of their duties terminates a woman’s pregnancy. They are sufficiently removed from direct involvement as, it seems to me, to afford appropriate respect for and accommodation of their beliefs,” said Lady Smith.

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However at an appeal against Lady Smith’s ruling, the women’s QC, Gerry Moynihan said it was expected, because of the importance of the case, that whichever side lost would look to take it to the Supreme Court in London for a final determination. Mr Moynihan argued for a wide interpretation of “participate” and that selecting staff for procedures, and giving support and guidance, amounted to participating in an abortion.

He said: “The dividing line of what is exempt (under conscientious objection) and what is duty ought to be the individual’s conscience, not a bureaucrat saying it is within the literal meaning of ‘participate’ or not.”

Brian Napier, QC, for the board, argued that its interpretation of the Act was reflected in guidance which had been given for many years by the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Nursing. They had spoken of “direct involvement in the procedure of terminating pregnancy” and “active participation in an abortion”.

The appeal judges, Lord Mackay, Lady Dorrian and Lord McEwan, ruled for the midwives.

Giving the decision, Lady Dorrian said that great respect should be given to the advice provided by the professional bodies but “prior practice does not necessarily dictate interpretation.”

She added: “We agree...that legislation such as this should be interpreted in a way which allows (the midwives) to be true to their beliefs while remaining respectful of the law. (The conscientious objection provision) allows an individual to object to participating in ‘any’ treatment under the Act. 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.

“The right is given because it is recognised that the process of abortion is felt by many people to be morally is a matter on which many people have strong moral and religious convictions, and the right of conscientious objection is given out of respect for those convictions and not for any other reason. It is in keeping with the reason for the exemption that the wide interpretation which we favour should be given to it.

“The only circumstance when the objection cannot prevail should be when the termination is necessary to save life or prevent grave permanent injury, because in such a situation the real purpose is not to effect a termination but to save life or prevent serious permanent injury.”

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The situation had arisen when midwives at Glasgow’s Southern General Hospital as Labour Ward Co-ordinators (LWCs) were told that they had to oversee abortion procedures when the hospital reorganised abortion services, transferring late abortion patients to the labour ward rather than the gynaecology ward.

Paul Tully of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) said: “We hope that the health board will abide by this verdict and enable life to return to normal for Connie and Mary...This outcome will be a great relief to all midwives, nurses and doctors who may be under pressure to supervise abortion procedures and are wondering whether the law protects their right to opt out.”

Philip Tartaglia, the Archbishop of Glasgow described the verdict as a “victory for freedom of conscience and common sense” and said: “I hope that many pro-life health professionals will take heart from this judgement and have the courage to express their own objections if and when they are asked to carry out tasks which are morally wrong and violate their conscience.”

A statement from the NHS Greater Glasgow aNd Clyde Health Board said: “We note the outcome of the appeal and will be considering our options with our legal advisers over the next few days.”