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Steve Weatherbe

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Midwives defend right to opt out of supervising abortions at UK’s Supreme Court

Steve Weatherbe

A Scottish hospital board argued at the British Supreme Court earlier this week that hospital staff ought not to be able to opt out of a job requiring them to assign subordinates to assist at abortions.

Two senior midwives and their employer, the Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Board, had their day in court this week but must wait at least three months for the decision in a case that will determine how far the so-called “Conscience Clause” in the nation’s Abortion Act can be applied.

Mary Doogan and Concepta Wood have together delivered 10,000 babies and on the strength of that experience were promoted to supervisors of other midwives in the labour ward at their hospital. But starting in 2007, the ward started doing late-term abortions (usually when the child was seriously disabled) and they were required to assign other midwives to assist.

They challenged the new assignment, losing in a lower court and winning on appeal. The hospital board appealed and on November 10, both sides argued before the Supreme Court.

The case hangs on the breadth of Clause 4 of the Abortion Act, Paul Tully, secretary general of the Society for Protection of Unborn Children, told LifeSiteNews. It states: “No person shall be under any duty, whether by contract or by any statutory or other legal requirement, to participate in any treatment authorised by this Act to which he has a conscientious objection.” Its application to doctors, nurses, and midwives is clear, said Tully, but not so for those who supervise them.

When Mrs. Doogan and Wood lost in lower court in 2012, the judge found that, “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.” But last year the appeal court ruled that “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.”

In a November 11 story, the BBC noted that the health board has been joined in the case by the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), without mentioning that BPAS is the country’s largest abortion provider.

While ignoring the arguments for the two midwives, the BBC helpfully devoted considerable space to Ann Furedi, BPAS’s CEO, who “supports the right of healthcare professionals to conscientious objection, not least because women deserve better than being treated with contempt by those who think they are sinners.”

She adds, "But ultimately a balance needs to be struck between that exercise of conscience and women's access to legal services. It would be grossly unjust if an interpretation of conscientious objection was allowed to stand which would disrupt services to the point that those committed to helping women were unable to do so.”

In fact, the health board is claiming that exempting the two midwives from assigning the subordinates to the tiny fraction of patients seeking late-term abortions would significantly impair service, if not in their hospital, in other areas with smaller staffs.

But Tully says the argument is irrelevant, since Clause Four is absolute. Though the issue resembles many cases that come before human rights tribunals, which look for reasonable “accommodations” or compromises (between hospitals, for example, and employees who want religious holy days off), Clause Four is not accommodating. The only issue is whether the two midwives’ consciences are violated by their job description.

“Ordinary midwives already have a right to say, ‘We don’t want to assist at abortions,’ but the Supreme Court will decide if their supervisors do as well,” Tully told LifeSiteNews. SPUC is raising funds for the pair but worries that, as Tully says, “if they lose, they could be hit with tens of thousands of pounds in legal costs.”

Both women are practicing Catholics but neither engage in media interviews lest they antagonize their co-workers. After their 2013 victory, they issued a joint statement through SPUC, which read, in part, “In holding all life to be sacred from conception to natural death, as midwives we have always worked in the knowledge we have two lives to care for throughout labour; a mother and that of her unborn child.”

“Today's judgement is a welcome affirmation of the rights of all midwives to withdraw from a practice that would violate their conscience and which over time, would indeed debar many from entering what has always been a very rewarding and noble profession.”

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