Forced to supervise abortions
Publication Date: 2012-03-02
— Court of Session in Edinburgh rules against Catholic midwives’ right to exercise their conscience
The Court of Session in Edinburgh has ruled that midwives can be forced to supervise the carrying out of abortions, a move Archbishop Conti of Glasgow said ‘contradicted’ Scotland’s ‘most basic freedom.’
On Wednesday, Judge Lady Smith rejected the case brought by Catholic midwives Mary Doogan, 57, and Concepta Wood, 51, who hold supervisory positions in the labour ward of Glasgow’s Southern General Hospital. The women claimed that being made to oversee staff involved in abortions was a breach of their human rights.
In her ruling, Lady Smith said the 1967 Abortion Act allowed only qualified conscientious objection, and that the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights in relation to freedom of conscience and religion were not absolute.
Archbishop Conti said he viewed the judgement with ‘deep concern.’
“It is fundamental to the functioning of society that all citizens act in accordance with an informed conscience,” he said. “Any law or judgement which fails to recognise this contradicts that most basic freedom and duty which we all have as human beings, namely to follow our conscience and act accordingly. Any assault on this principle undermines the very basis of the law itself and society’s moral cohesion, which the law should seek to guarantee.”
The archbishop said he wished to put ‘on record’ his admiration ‘for the courage of the midwives who have, at very great cost to themselves, fought to uphold the right to follow one’s conscience.’
One of those midwives, Miss Doogan said she and Mrs Wood were ‘very disappointed’ with the verdict, which she said would have ‘very grave consequences for anyone of conscience who wishes to choose midwifery as a career.’
“For most of our 20-plus years of employment as midwifery sisters at the Southern General Hospital we have been proud to be associated with a maternity unit in which the right of all midwifery staff to freedom of conscience has been acknowledged, protected and upheld with no detrimental outcome to any mother whatsoever,” she said. “Unfortunately, following the changes in working practices which were introduced in 2008 along with new management and a new restrictive interpretation of the conscience clause, those historical and legal rights were in effect negated. In seeking a judicial review, our aim… [was] merely to reinstate those rights as previously and correctly interpreted.”
Miss Doogan went on to say neither she nor Mrs Wood stand in ‘judgement of any woman who chooses to terminate her pregnancy.’
“We are… aware of the difficult choices that some expectant mothers may be faced with in a crisis pregnancy,” she said. “However, in holding to the view that life should be protected from conception to natural death, neither do we wish to be judged for exercising what is and always has been our legal right to refuse to participate in the process of medical termination of pregnancy.”
She added that the court ruling would have a ‘significant impact on pro-life doctors and nurses across the country’ and that she and Mrs Wood would now ‘take some time to consider all options that are available.’
Degrees of involvement
In her judgement, Lady Smith said the two midwives were ‘protected from having any direct involvement with the procedure to which they object.’
“Nothing they have to do as part of their duties terminates a woman’s pregnancy,” she said.
She added that they are removed from ‘direct involvement’ and ‘afforded appropriate respect’ for their beliefs. She also said that the two midwives should have expected to have to oversee abortions when they chose their career.
“They knowingly accepted that these duties were to be part of their job,” she wrote.
Lady Smith said she accepted the midwives’ religious belief that ‘abortion is wrong.’
“It is not disputed that their belief is a genuine religious belief that is worthy of respect,” she said “The issue is whether or not the state of affairs to which they object constitutes an interference with their rights there under. They are not being asked to play any direct part in bringing about terminations of pregnancy. The role of labour ward co-ordinator is a supervisory and administrative one. It is not she who authorises the termination. It is not she who administers the pessaries or monitors whether or not the pessaries are having their intended effect. It is not she who attends directly on the woman undergoing termination of pregnancy on a one-to-one basis during the procedure.”
John Deighan, the Scottish bishops’ parliamentary officer, said the judgement ‘should be very concerning to all of society.’
“It is worrying on two levels: on the freedom of conscience, which should protect all people in society, and secondly on abortion, which is a serious evil and breach of human rights,” he said.
Mr Deighan said the ruling showed ‘our society needs a fuller discussion’ on the freedom of conscience.
“If the ruling is saying that removal from direct involvement removes the nurses’ right of conscientious objection that is clearly incompatible with the rational facet that their presence, in a position of responsibility, is allowing something evil to take place,” he said.
The midwifery sisters have been out of the labour ward at the Southern General while pursuing an in-house grievance procedure and then the judicial review action against their employer, Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Board, at the Court of Session in Edinburgh.
Miss Doogan has been absent from work due to ill health for almost two years and Mrs Wood has been transferred to other duties. Their legal costs were underwritten by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children who said the decision was ‘very disappointing.’
Lady Smith has granted the midwives the right to appeal.