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Midwives lose case over right to refuse to supervise terminations

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Two Catholic midwives have been told they do not have the right to avoid supervising other nurses involved in caring for patients having pregnancy terminations.

As conscientious objectors on religious grounds, Mary Doogan and Connie Wood had challenged whether their health board could require them to delegate, supervise and support staff who were involved in carrying out terminations.

“This ruling is sensible and both women and midwives will welcome it”

Gillian Smith

The Supreme Court in London yesterday ruled against the pair, who had previously won an appeal case in Scotland over their role as labour ward co-ordinators at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow.

The Royal College of Midwives described the new ruling a “sensible decision” that would bring “clarity” to health professionals in similar situations.

Gillian Smith, RCM director for Scotland, said: “The ruling gives extensive definition to complex clinical and other situations, in regard to whether conscientious objection applies or not. Midwives and other clinicians will benefit from this ruling’s clarity.”

The two midwives believed their right to conscientious objection was breached by being asked to answer telephone calls to book women in and delegate or supervise staff providing terminations to women primarily ending a pregnancy after a diagnosis of foetal anomaly.

A Scottish court ruled in 2013 that Ms Doogan and Ms Wood should indeed have legal protection from such tasks.

However, their employer NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde appealed, saying the right to abstain should only extend to treatment ending a pregnancy.

The case centred on interpretation of the 1967 Abortion Act, which includes a clause allowing healthcare professionals to refuse to participate in abortion care, provided it is not an emergency.

The Supreme Court judges said parliament was likely to have envisaged that right to refuse as being restricted to “actually taking part”.

“’Participate’ in my view means taking part in a ‘hands-on’ capacity”

Lady Hales

Lady Hale, deputy president of the court, explained this by saying that MPs would not have viewed it as including managers, administrators, caterers or cleaners involved in running the service.

“The managerial and supervisory tasks carried out by the labour ward co-ordinators are closer to these roles than they are to the role of providing the treatment which brings about the termination of the pregnancy,” she said.

“’Participate’ in my view means taking part in a ‘hands-on’ capacity,” she stated.

The RCM and British Pregnancy Advisory Service welcomed the judgment, which they described as a “landmark”.

They warned that the previous ruling would have allowed for a widely expanded interpretation of conscientious objection that could have “seriously jeopardised” care in hospitals around the UK.

Such a “broad and unprecedented” interpretation of conscientious objection would effectively have enabled a “tiny number of staff opposed to abortion to make women’s care undeliverable in many NHS settings”, they argued.

  • 7 Comments

Readers' comments (7)

  • Pussy

    Quite right too. I thought nurses were supposed to be totally non-judgemental and anyway it's not about the midwives it about the patient.

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  • This seems an odd ruling from the few details given. The rule for interpreting statutes is that Parliament must be assumed to have enacted what it meant to enact: judges are supposed to look at the actual words of the statute and decide what those words mean, giving them their usual meaning unless they are otherwise defined in the statute itself. They aren't supposed to look behind the wording to see what Parliament would have wanted.

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  • This may not be the best example, but here it goes ...
    In a bank robbery there is usually someone who robs the bank and someone who drives the getaway car. In a court of law both are guilty (as I understand it), although different sentences may be given.
    In this case the midwives would be like the driver.
    I do hope that these obviously very capable and I believe caring midwives will find a position (maybe in teaching) where they can continue to utilise their skills and knowledge in a way that suits everyone.

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  • This is a bad decision. Delivery suite coordinators are being compared to cleaners and administrators in the degree of input they have. In reality, coordinators often have to deal with drug regimes, pain relief, and complications.
    Why are the RCM in Scotland now pro choice for abortions and against conscientious objections? Who gave them that mandate? Does this also apply in England? The RCM should be ashamed and backtrack as soon as possible. Hope it goes to Europe soon

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  • I think the problem is that these midwives never chose to go into this field, this is surely the fault of administrators and managers cost cutting and merging wards. Midwives expect to be bringing life into the world, who can blame them for not wanting to be involved in a field of work they never chose to be in?

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  • perhaps they should be appealing to the Vatican rather than the supreme court and if that fails the EU court of justice!

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  • If voluntary euthanasia ever becomes legal in this country, would all general nurses be happy about taking part in this process whether they agree or not?

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