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Threat to conscience rights thrown out by Council of Europe

The plenary room of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg (Photo: PA)

An attempt to persuade Europe’s leading human rights organisation to fight to abolish the rights of doctors and nurses to conscientiously object to involvement in abortions yesterday ended in a humiliating defeat.

Members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe not only roundly rejected a resolution to strip medical professionals of their rights to opt out of abortions but they also comprehensively rewrote the proposals so that they amounted to a defence of conscientious objection.

They even changed the name of the resolution from “Women’s Access to Lawful Medical Care: the Problem of Unregulated Conscientious Objection” to “The Right to Conscientious Objection in Lawful Medical Care”.

The 107 assembly members also rejected a recommendation for the 47-strong Committee of Ministers, which includes William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, to take action to tighten up European laws on conscientious objection.

In the face of the rout, Christine McCafferty, the British Socialist assembly member and the author of the resolution, ended up voting against the final version of her report.

Afterwards, the pro-life activists who had lobbied members to support dozens of wrecking amendments to the resolution were jubilant.

Dr Dan Boucher of CARE, a British Evangelical Christian charity, said: “The Council of Europe has done what the Council of Europe should do. It has stood against those who would like to play fast and loose with the important role played by conscience in our liberal democratic traditions which the Council exists to champion.

“We in Europe must cherish our Liberal Democratic traditions and the important role that conscience has played and continues to play in them,” he added. “A key constitutional freedom has today very properly been upheld.”

Anthony Ozimic, of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said: “This evening witnessed an incredible victory for the right of staff in medical institutions to refuse to be complicit in the killing of unborn children and other unethical practices.”

Miss McCafferty, the former Labour MP for the Calder Valley who lost her seat at the last general election, had drafted her resolution partly in response to reports of rising numbers of European doctors refusing to be involved in abortions.

She claimed that women in such traditionally Roman Catholic countries as Austria are being forced to travel overseas to end their pregnancies because so many doctors will not perform abortions.

In the Lazio region of Italy, which covers Rome, an estimated 86 per cent of doctors now refuse to deal with abortions and in Britain Baroness Royall, the former Labour Health spokeswoman, has also admitted that more and more doctors are refusing to carry them out.

Miss McCafferty had argued, in her resolution, that “the unregulated use of conscientious objection disproportionately affects women, notably those on low incomes or living in rural areas”.

She wanted the Council to endorse her proposal for all doctors to direct women seeking an abortion to people who will provide the procedure rather than simply give them information or inform them of their right to see another doctor, which in Britain is current practice under General Medical Council guidelines.

The resolution would also have obliged doctors to provide abortions “despite his or her conscientious objection … when referral to another healthcare provider is not possible”.

She called for a register of doctors who had conscientious objections, a complaints mechanism for women who feel aggrieved by a refusal of a doctor to either grant an abortion or to perform the procedure directly.

She proposed that healthcare institutions – including hundreds of European hospitals run by the Catholic Church – should not be allowed to stop abortions from being performed on their premises.

But her reforming clauses were simply deleted during the debate.

In their place were inserted amendments which read, for instance, that “no person, hospital or institution shall be coerced, held liable or discriminated against in any manner because of a refusal to perform, accommodate, assist or submit to an abortion”.

Her resolution would have been non-binding, had it been passed, but it would have been used to exert powerful pressure on governments to tighten up laws on conscientious objection.

The Strasbourg-based Council was set up in 1949 to further European integration by harmonising human rights laws. It bases its work on the European Convention on Human Rights and it includes the European Court of Human Rights, to which Europeans can bring cases if they believe a member state has violated their rights.

Conscientious objection is recognised as a fundamental human right in international law whereas abortion is not. Members of the European Union retain their sovereign powers to decide their own policies.

Miss McCafferty’s resolution came just two years after the Council adopted a resolution calling for member states to recognise abortion as a universal human right, and to grant women unrestricted access to the procedure.

Her resolution was supported by such groups as the European Humanist Federation, the European Parliament Platform for Secularism in Politics and the UK-based Secular Medical Forum and the National Secular Society.

It was widely expected that it would be adopted until most members decided to back the amendments tabled mostly by Ronan Mullen, the Irish senator, and Luca Volonte, an assembly member from Italy.

The amended resolution was adopted by 56 votes to 51 votes and the recommendations to the Committee of Ministers were defeated by 56 votes to 51 votes.