Catholic midwives lose abortion 'conscientious objection' case

Mary Doogan and Concepta Wood took their case to the Court of Session Mary Doogan and Concepta Wood took their case to the Court of Session

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Two Roman Catholic midwives have lost a legal battle to avoid taking part in abortion procedures because of their "conscientious objections".

Midwifery sisters Mary Doogan, 57, and Concepta Wood, 51, said being forced to supervise staff taking part in abortions violated their human rights.

The women had sought to challenge NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde on the issue.

But a judge at the Court of Session ruled the midwives did not have direct involvement in terminating pregnancies.

NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde welcomed the judgement and said the ruling had recognised efforts to accommodate the members of staff.

At the court in Edinburgh, Lady Smith said Ms Doogan, from Garrowhill in Glasgow, and Mrs Wood, from Clarkston in East Renfrewshire, were Roman Catholics and objected on religious grounds to participating in abortions.

Lady Smith said: "Nothing they have to do as part of their 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."

Abortion Act

The midwifery sisters were employed as labour ward co-ordinators at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow, although Ms Doogan has been absent due to ill health since March 2010 and Mrs Wood has transferred to other work due to the dispute.

The women had given notice of their conscientious objection under the abortion legislation many years ago, but became concerned when all medical terminations were moved to the labour ward in 2007.

Start Quote

The nature of their duties does not in fact require them to provide treatment to terminate pregnancies directly”

End Quote Judge Lady Smith

They claimed that previously they were not called on to delegate, supervise or support staff engaged in the care of patients undergoing terminations, although the health authority disputed this.

The health board maintained that the Abortion Act did not confer on the midwives any right to refuse to delegate, support or supervise staff providing nursing care for women going through abortions.

The midwives, who had the support of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, claimed that the health board decision also breached their rights under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights which guarantees the right to freedom of religion.

But Lady Smith said she was not satisfied that their Article 9 rights were being interfered with.

She said their right of conscientious objection was not unqualified and they had agreed to take up the roles of labour ward co-ordinators, although they now took objection to the job content.

The judge added: "In any event, the nature of their duties does not in fact require them to provide treatment to terminate pregnancies directly."

Duty and rights

A spokeswoman for the health board said: "NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde recognises the absolute right of staff to conscientiously object to participate in treatments authorised within the Abortion Act 1967.

"We are fully supportive of staff who hold a position of conscientious objection and make every effort to accommodate them, however at the same time we have an unequivocal duty of care to ensure the safety of our patients and as such we must balance this responsibility with the rights of the conscientious objector.

"We are pleased that Lady Smith has recognised the efforts of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde to accommodate these members of staff."

Paul Tully, general secretary of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), said: "We are very disappointed by the judgment. SPUC has supported the midwives in bringing their case, and will now be considering their further legal options with them."

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