According to Article Nine of the European Convention on Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community, to manifest religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”
It also declares that: “Freedom … shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
However, this rhetoric does not amount to much. It would, in most circumstances, be wrong to compel someone to perform an operation of any sort, far less an abortion. However, when we adopt particular roles and accept particular jobs, we waive particular moral and legal rights and acquire duties. If we voluntarily accept the benefits of a situation, we ought to accept the attendant burdens. It might well be unreasonable to compel a midwife to be directly involved in an abortion. Indeed, it would seem to be illegal since, in terms of the Abortion Act of 1967, only “registered medical practitioners”, ie doctors, are allowed to do so. However, it is not unreasonable for an employer to require a midwife to be indirectly involved in the provision of abortions. If all nurses refused to do anything they felt related to abortions, women who required them would be deprived of abortions. People do not have a moral right to remain as nurses and persist in such refusal.
• Hugh McLachlan is Professor of Applied Philosophy at Glasgow Caledonian University.