The UK’s highest court has overturned a decision affecting the case of two Roman Catholic midwives who had previously won the right to avoid supervising staff involved in abortions.
Last April, judges at Edinburgh’s Court of Session ruled that Mary Doogan and Connie Wood’s conscientious objection to abortions meant they had the right to refuse to delegate, supervise or support staff involved in abortions.
But the UK Supreme Court has now overturned this ruling after an appeal by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde.
The landmark judgement by the five Supreme Court justices rejected the view that the right of conscience extended to the whole process of abortion. It ruled instead that conscientious objection only applied where an individual was “taking part in a hands-on capacity”.
The Supreme Court case focused on the scope of the right that the midwives have to object on the grounds of conscience under the Abortion Act 1967 and particularly the “meaning of the words ‘to participate in any treatment authorised by this Act to which he has a conscientious objection'”.
Deliberations will now continue in the ongoing Employment Tribunal case brought by the midwives, which Lady Hale states will be much better suited to resolve the question of practicable adjustments.
In the judgement Lady Hale also noted that the Equality Act 2010 protects employees from discrimination on the grounds of their religion or belief and said: “So, even if not protected by the conscience clause in section 4, the petitioners may still claim that, either under the Human Rights Act or under the Equality Act, their employers should have made reasonable adjustments to the requirements of the job in order to cater for their religious beliefs”.
In the previous Court of Session ruling in favour of the women, Judge Lady Dorrian had said: “In our view 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.”
She added: “The right is given because it is recognised that the process of abortion is felt by many people to be morally repugnant.”
The midwives, employed as labour ward co-ordinators at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow, said they were “saddened and extremely disappointed” with Wednesday’s judgement.
In a statement they said that the “tiny percentage” of their work that involved abortion meant they could have been accommodated with “minimal effort”.
However the narrow judgement has “resulted in the provision of a conscience clause which now in practice is meaningless for senior midwives on a labour ward”.
Roman Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow, Philip Tartaglia, expressed dismay and disappointment at the decision, saying, “it was a case that centred on the right of ordinary citizens to have their conscience respected in society and at work. All of society is a poorer, less respectful and less tolerant place as a result of this decision”.
Paul Tully of pro-life group SPUC (the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children), which has covered the midwives’ legal fees, warned that the ruling could renew efforts to force doctors who have a conscientious objection to abortion to “compromise their respect for human life or to leave the profession”.