Earlier this year, two midwives, both Catholics, won (or so they thought) a legal battle to avoid taking any part in abortion procedures. Mary Doogan and Concepta Wood, were employed as “labour ward co-ordinators” at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow. They had lost a previous case against the NHS in Glasgow. At a judicial review at the Court of Session in Edinburgh, the judge, Lady Smith, had ruled against them, pronouncing that “Nothing they have to do as part of their duties terminates a woman’s pregnancy”. In other words, their human rights had not been violated by a requirement that they supervise arrangements for abortions to be carried out, since they were not directly involved in carrying out the abortions themselves.
They launched an appeal. Their counsel, Gerry Moynihan, QC told the court that since the women were part of a team, their right to conscientious objection extended to the whole of their duties, save for the provision that there was an obligation to participate in life-saving measures. He argued that there was clear legal authority that the right to conscientious objection was intended to apply to the whole team whose involvement was necessary to achieve the procedure. Mr Moynihan said that because the midwives let the administration know of their objection in advance, the health board should manage its staff as a whole to respect their right to conscientious objection.
Both women registered their conscientious objection to participation in pregnancy terminations years ago, but became concerned when all medical terminations were (shockingly, surely) actually moved to the labour ward in 2007. Nationally, it seems, a small but increasing number of abortions are being transferred to labour wards in line with national policies encouraging abortion for disabled babies. Screening and offering abortion for disabled babies is regarded as a cost-effective measure, and hospitals are encouraged to offer tests for disability.
The two Glasgow midwives bravely refused to have anything to do with these policies. They insisted that being called on to supervise and support staff providing care to women having an abortion would amount to ‘’participation in treatment’’ and would breach their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.
The three Edinburgh Appeal Court judges agreed. They ruled that the midwives’ right to conscientious objection (recognised in the 1967 Abortion Act) against direct involvement in “terminations” indeed meant that they could also refuse to delegate, supervise or support staff involved in abortions. “In our view”, they said, “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.”
Mary Doogan issued a statement:
Connie and I are absolutely delighted with today’s judgement from the Court of Session, which recognises and upholds our rights as labour ward midwifery sisters to withdraw from participating in any treatment that would result in medical termination of pregnancy.
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. It is with great relief we can now return to considerations that are all to do with child birth and midwifery practice and less to do with legal matters.
The two midwives were “absolutely delighted” too soon. Unbelievably, I was going to say, though in these times almost anything has become believable, the Glasgow NHS appealed to the Supreme Court in London. This is now, therefore, an important test case: and this is presumably why the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, SPUC, has undertaken the financial costs of this appeal. At the Supreme Court the appeal will concern the scope of the right to conscientious objection under the Abortion Act 1967 and in particular the decision of the appeal judges that the women’s entitlement to conscientious objection includes the entitlement to refuse to supervise staff in the provision of care to patients undergoing termination.
So this is now a case which concerns all Catholics (indeed, all those involved in the pro-life movement: not only Catholics are concerned) in the United Kingdom: the two midwives’ case is also, now, ours, too. In the words of John Smeaton, SPUC’s National Director, “If we don’t fight back now, legal protection for conscientious objectors could be gravely undermined…. Denying healthcare professionals the right to opt out of abortion will extinguish the vital pro-life witness which must be maintained if we are to see the day when the slaughter is to be stopped”. It will also mean that, in Mary Doogan’s words, Catholics would be debarred “from entering what has always been a very rewarding and noble profession.”
SPUC has bravely undertaken a considerable and risky financial burden, and they have now launched an appeal to help meet their costs. I appeal to my readers to respond generously. The link to donate online is here.
Donors need to click on the drop-down menu and select “Glasgow Midwives Appeal – general”. Or you can do it by telephone. Get out your card and call SPUC HQ on 020 7091 7091.