AN ATTEMPT by two Roman Catholic midwives to avoid any involvement in abortions as conscientious objectors has been rejected by a judge.
Mary Doogan, 57, and Concepta Wood, 51, held supervisory positions in the labour ward of Glasgow’s Southern General Hospital, and claimed that even having to delegate and support staff in terminations was a breach of their human rights.
However, Lady Smith said the 1967 Abortion Act allowed only qualified conscientious objection. She also ruled that the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights in relation to freedom of conscience and religion were, similarly, not absolute.
“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.
The judgment will have important repercussions for hospitals throughout the United Kingdom.
She added: “Further, they knowingly accepted that these duties were to be part of their job. They can be taken to have known that their professional body, the Royal College of Nursing, takes the view that the right of conscientious objection is limited and extends only to active participation in the termination.”
The midwifery sisters have been out of the labour ward at the Southern General while pursuing an in-house grievance procedure and then the judicial review action against their employer, Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Board, at the Court of Session in Edinburgh. Miss Doogan has been absent due to ill health for almost two years and Mrs Wood has been transferred to other duties. They had the financial backing of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.
The court was told that the women opposed abotion, believing that every foetus had a right to life. They considered it abhorrent to be instructed to assist in or facilitate any action which led to the termination of a woman’s pregnancy.
Lady Smith said: “The issue they raise is this: given the right of conscientious objection (under the 1967 Act), are Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Board entitled to require them to delegate, supervise and support staff in the treatment of patients undergoing termination of pregnancy?
“The board’s position is that the Act does not confer on the women any right to refuse to delegate, supervise and/or support staff in the provision of nursing care to patients undergoing medical termination of pregnancy.”
Lady Smith said the key words in the Act regarding conscientious objection were “participate” and “treatment”. In relation to the ECHR, she added that the right to hold a belief was absolute, but the right to manifest it was qualified.
“The belief asserted in the present case is the belief that abortion is wrong. It is a religious belief in respect that the carrying out of abortion is contrary to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, of which the (midwives) are members. It is not disputed that their belief is a genuine religious belief that is worthy of respect. The issue is whether or not the state of affairs to which they object constitutes an interference with their rights thereunder,” said Lady Smith.
The judge continued: “They are not being asked to play any direct part in bringing about terminations of pregnancy. The role of labour ward co-ordinator is a supervisory and administrative one. It is not she who authorises the termination. It is not she who administers the pessaries or monitors whether or not the pessaries are having their intended effect. It is not she who attends directly on the woman undergoing termination of pregnancy on a one to one basis during the procedure.”
The ordinary meaning of “participate” was “taking part in” and Lady Smith said: “It would not cover those who, though causally connected, do not take part in the objectionable activity - administering the treatment which terminates the pregnancy.
“There is, I consider, no indication that parliament intended a wider approach such as would cover all those who could in any way be said to have facilitated the giving of the treatment. That category would, I accept, be very wide ranging and it does not seem to me that that is what was intended.”
Lady Smith said that for many women in labour wards, the purpose of their being there was to achieve a joyful outcome - the birth of a live, healthy child. There were, however, others who, for a variety of reasons, were in the ward so their pregnancy could be brought to an end. The law recognised their right to pursue that purpose in certain circumstances.
“In 1967, parliament sought to accommodate public morality, medical ethics, and religious teachings within a single piece of legislation and it might be thought that it is a tribute to the success of that venture that it has given rise to very little litigation in the last 45 years, despite the fact that very many terminations of pregnancy have been carried out under its authorisations, up and down the country, throughout that time.”