Mary Doogan, 57, and Concepta Wood, 51, said they were “greatly saddened” by yesterday’s ruling and warned that it would have “very grave consequences”.
The pair held supervisory positions in the labour ward of Glasgow’s Southern General Hospital and had claimed delegating and supporting staff who were administering abortions, as was required following a change of hospital policy in 2008, was a breach of their human rights.
However, Lady Smith at the Court of Session in Edinburgh ruled yesterday that the 1967 Abortion Act allowed only “qualified” conscientious objection, and the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights in relation to freedom of conscience and religions, were, similarly, not absolute.
The case focused on what constituted participation in a termination with the two midwives arguing their role permitted it to be carried out, while the court concluded they were suitably removed from the process.
In a judgment that will have important repercussions for all UK hospitals, Lady Smith stated: “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.”
She added: “Further, they knowingly accepted 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 two midwives had worked at the Southern General for 20 years when, in 2008 the hospital decided all mid- to late-term abortions should take place in the labour ward rather than the gynaecology ward where early-term abortions take place.
As senior midwives, they were then required to take responsibility for ensuring the abortions were adequately staffed and were on call in case of an emergency. The labour ward currently carries out between one and eight abortions a month.
Ms Doogan, who has been off work through ill-health for more than a year, and Ms Wood, who felt forced to seek a transfer to alternative work, said: “Sadly today’s negative court decision must surely result in very grave consequences for anyone of conscience who wishes to choose midwifery as a career. Its impact on pro-life doctors and nurses across the country is also likely to be significant.”
The midwifery sisters have been out of the labour ward while pursuing an in-house grievance and the judicial review against employer, Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Board, at the Court of Session. They had the backing of the anti-abortion campaign group, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC).
The court was told the women opposed abortion, believing every foetus had a right to life. They considered it abhorrent to be instructed to assist in or facilitate any action which led to a termination. However, Lady Smith said: “They are not being asked to play any direct part in bringing about terminations. 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.”
Yesterday Archbishop of Glasgow Mario Conti said he viewed the judgment “with deep concern” and admired “the courage of the midwives who have, at very great cost to themselves, fought to uphold the right to follow one’s conscience.”
Paul Tully, general secretary of the SPUC, said: “We are very disappointed by the judgment.”
However, the health board said: “This is a significant judgment regarding the employment and responsibilities of midwives throughout the NHS in the UK. In her judgment Lady Smith recognised that the petitioners ‘are sufficiently removed from direct involvement to afford appropriate respect for and accommodation of their beliefs’.”