Two Catholic midwives have won an appeal over the right to avoid any involvement in abortion procedures.
Midwifery sisters Mary Doogan, 58, and Concepta Wood, 52, argued that being required to supervise staff involved in abortions is a violation of their human rights.
As conscientious objectors to the process, the women had no direct role in pregnancy terminations but claimed that they should also be entitled to refuse to delegate and support staff taking part in the procedures.
The women took their case against NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde to the Court of Session in Edinburgh but lost last year.
But three appeal judges at the same court on Wednesday ruled that their appeal should succeed.
“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,” ruled Lady Dorrian, sitting with Lords Mackay and McEwan.
The health board noted the decision and said it would be considering its options with its legal advisers.
Ms Doogan and Ms Wood 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.
Both women, practising Roman Catholics, registered their conscientious objection to participation in pregnancy terminations years ago, as allowed by the Abortion Act, but became concerned when all medical terminations were moved to the labour ward in 2007.
They argued that before that they were not called on to delegate, supervise or support staff treating or caring for patients undergoing termination procedures - a stance disputed by the health board.
They said the supervision and support of staff providing care to women having an abortion did amount to “participation in treatment” and breached their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. They raised a petition for a judicial review at the court, which was refused last year by judge Lady Smith.
She found that the women were sufficiently removed from involvement in pregnancy terminations to afford them appropriate respect for their beliefs.
The midwives said at the time that they were “very disappointed” by the decision, and appealed against that ruling.
During the hearing earlier this year, Gerry Moynihan QC, representing the women, suggested that their consciences should determine what tasks they undertake.
He told the court: “The dividing line ought to be the individual’s conscience, not a bureaucrat saying what is within the literal meaning of the word ‘participation’ or not.”
The health board argued that the right of conscientious objection was a right only to refuse to take part in activities that directly brought about the termination of a pregnancy, and was not available to the pair in respect of their duties of delegation, supervision and support. It said the interpretation of the law sought by the midwives would lead to difficult clinical and legal distinctions in practice.
But ruling in favour of the midwives, the judges wrote: “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 repugnant… It 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.”
They added: “It follows that the appeal should succeed.”
NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde said in a statement: “We note the outcome of the appeal and will be considering our options with our legal advisers over the next few days.”
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