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Catholic midwives win abortion appeal case

Employment Law & HR
BG Purple

Two Catholic midwives who conscientiously objected to being involved in the treatment of woman undergoing abortions have won an appeal against NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde at the Court of Session.

Mary Doogan and Concepta Wood were required to supervise other nursing staff who cared for patients undergoing terminations on maternity wards.  Under the Abortion Act 1967, health care professionals have the right to conscientiously object to treating women who are undergoing abortions.  

While there was no dispute that the midwives had the right to refuse to take part in the termination process itself, the midwives argued the right to conscientiously object should extend to pre and post operative care and also include the right to refuse to supervise other staff carrying out the procedure.  At the first hearing in February 2012 the Court ruled against the midwives, finding that their beliefs had been sufficiently accommodated by the NHS who did not require them to have direct involvement in the termination of pregnancies. Lady Smith said "Nothing they have to do as part of their [supervisory] 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." 

The midwives appealed to the Inner House of the Court of Session.  The Inner House overturned the lower court’s ruling, giving a wider interpretation to the provisions of the Abortion Act relating to conscientious objection. It found that medical staff have wide ranging protection of their right to object to taking part in any part of the abortion process. In this instance, their right had been violated by the health board.  

The judgment comes hot on the heels of the General Medical Council’s latest guidance, published earlier this week, which seems to suggest that rights to conscientious objection are limited to "refusal to participate in the procedure itself". It is anticipated that health boards will have to review their guidance and the judgment may have wide-ranging implications for health care professionals.  

For more analysis of this hot topic, why not log on to STV’s catch up service to catch LAW’s Director of Legal Services, Donald MacKinnon, participating in a panel discussion on the case on Scotland Tonight broadcast on 24th April.

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