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”
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 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.