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Pro-life Britons seeking careers in the health professions suffered a disheartening setback this week as the British Supreme Court ruled that a conscience exemption in the Abortion Act applied only to medical personnel directly involved in abortions.

“Essentially they are barring pro-lifers from the medical profession,” said Anthony McCarthy, educational director for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. In the works for seven years, it set two senior Scottish midwives, Mary Doogan and Concepta Wood, against their employer—and the British health establishment.

The two women released a statement of their own saying, “We are both saddened and extremely disappointed with today's verdict from the Supreme Court and can only imagine the subsequent detrimental consequences that will result from today's decision on staff of conscience throughout the UK.”

The SPUC is considering whether to appeal the decision to the European Court of Human Rights, but the latter body’s record on life cases is not encouraging, and the SPUC is not rich.

The British court was asked to decide if the two women, both managers of midwife services in their respective hospitals, could be exempted from referring midwives under them to assist at abortions being done in their ward. When the women were first promoted to their posts, their wards performed births only, but after a reorganization in 2007, abortions were added to the workload and they sought exemptions from assigning subordinates to abortions, citing the Abortion Act’s conscience clause.

But the court unanimously ruled that the conscience clause put into the Abortion Act to protect pro-life health workers applied only to doctors, nurses, or midwives directly performing or assisting at abortions. Not only did the court rule out the exemption as far as midwives and nurses in supervisory capacities were concerned, it ruled out general practitioners and even gynecologists who are asked to refer women to other doctors.

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“They weren’t even asked to rule on doctors,” said McCarthy. “They took it upon themselves to broaden the force of the ruling.” But the Royal College of Midwives and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (the country’s leading abortion provider) intervened in the case and asked for the broader decision.

“The abortion industry has been whittling away at the conscience clause since it was put in,” said McCarthy. “Now the Supreme Court is telling every ordinary general practitioner he must refer someone seeking an abortion to another doctor who is known to have no problem with abortions.” Previously, GPs could simply refer women to any other doctor without knowing their views on abortion, thus providing “some wiggle room” for their consciences. No longer.

The SPUC stated in a news release that, “We anticipate that this will lead to renewed efforts by health officials to force doctors who have a conscientious objection to abortion either to compromise their respect for human life or to leave the profession.  SPUC will support and encourage doctors to resist any such bullying approach.”

McCarthy said that despite the conscience clause supposedly protecting them, “there are no pro-life gynecologists left in Britain,” because pro-lifers have been weeded out in medical school before they enter the specialty. The same is happening to nurses and midwifes. “When Mrs. Duggan and Wood entered their profession, the question of doing abortions never came up.” 

Paul Tully, general secretary of the SPUC, acknowledged “the great debt that the whole pro-life community owes to Mary Doogan and Connie Wood for fighting this battle over the past seven years. They have fought not only for their own careers, but for all current and future members of the profession who uphold the right to life of everyone, from the time of conception, without discrimination. We are bitterly disappointed for them.”