Conscientious objection to abortion: Catholic midwives lose in Supreme Court

UK Human Rights Blog

The Supreme Court recently handed down its judgment in an interesting and potentially controversial case concerning the interpretation of the conscientious objection clause in the Abortion Act 1967. Overturning the Inner House of the Court of Session’s ruling, the Court held that two Catholic midwives could be required by their employer to delegate to, supervise and support other staff who were involved in carrying out abortion procedures, as part of their roles as Labour Ward Co-ordinators at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow.

We set out the background to the case and explained the earlier rulings and their ramifications on this blog here and here. The key question the Supreme Court had to grapple with the meaning of the words “to participate in any treatment authorised by this Act to which he has a conscientious objection” in section 4 of the 1967 Act.

The disappearing Article 9 argument

Somewhat frustratingly (at least from the perspective of the writers of a human rights blog!) an argument based around Article 9 of the European Convention – the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion – was not really dealt with by the Supreme Court, despite having been trailed in the earlier court proceedings. Lady Hale JSC, who wrote the judgment with which the other Supreme Court Justices agreed, described the point as a “distraction” . . . [Full text]


Catholic midwives’ abortion ruling overturned by supreme court

 Judges rule against Mary Doogan and Concepta Wood, who brought case objecting to any involvement in abortions

The Guardian

Libby Brooks

The UK’s supreme court has ruled that two Catholic midwives do not have the right to refuse to help other nurses with abortion procedures or planning.

Upholding an appeal by Greater Glasgow health board, the court found that Mary Doogan, 58, and Concepta Wood, 52, who worked as labour ward co-ordinators at the southern general hospital in Glasgow, did not have a legal right to object to helping with abortions in any way.

As conscientious objectors, the senior midwives have had no direct role in pregnancy terminations, but they argued that they should also be entitled to refuse to delegate, supervise and support staff involved in the procedures or providing care to patients during the process.

Reproductive rights campaigners were concerned that a decision by the court of session in Edinburgh in favour of the women’s case last year could have wide-ranging implications for the way the NHS dealt with other health staff who opposed abortions on religious grounds. . . [Full text]


Catholic midwives must supervise abortions, Supreme Court decides

Catholic midwives Mary Doogan and Connie Wood lose case against being made to supervise other staff carrying out abortions

The Telegraph

Patrick Sawer

Two Catholic midwives who refused to take part in any abortion procedures have lost their legal battle to be treated as ‘conscientious objectors’.

The UK’s highest court overturned a previous ruling made in favour of the two midwives, after a Scottish health authority urged it to overturn last year’s decision of the Court of Session, in Edinburgh, in the case of Mary Doogan and Connie Wood.

The ruling is likely to mean that Ms Doogan and Ms Wood will now have to supervise abortions carried out by other staff, as part of their terms of employment, although they will still be free to refuse to carry out the terminations themselves.

The case centres on the scope of the right to conscientious objection under the Abortion Act 1967, which provides that “no person shall be under any duty … to participate in any treatment authorised by this Act to which he has a conscientious objection”. . . [Full text]


Midwives ‘forced to leave profession because they refuse to partake in abortions’

The UK’s highest court ruled on the matter this morning.


TWO MIDWIVES WHO do not want to partake in any abortion services in the UK have been told they must still delegate, supervise and support other staff.

The ruling was made by the UK’s highest court today, overruling a previous judgement that found in favour of the nurses.

Concepta Wood and Mary Doogan are both conscientious objectors and have been labelled in the British media as “Catholic midwives” since they began their legal challenge seven years ago. . . [Full text]

Supreme Court rules against Glasgow midwives

Midwives, Archbishop of Glasgow and SPUC react to decision announced this morning that fails to protect their right to conscientiously object to supervising abortion

Scottish Catholic Observer

Ian Dunn

The Supreme Court has ruled two Glasgow Catholic midwives cannot conscientiously object to supervising abortions performed on labour wards.

Mary Doogan and Connie Wood, the midwives in the case, commented on the ruling, releaed this morning to say the they were ‘saddened and extremely disappointed with the verdict’ and suggested it will have a substantial ‘detrimental effect’  on ‘staff of conscience throughout the UK.’

“Despite it having been recognised that the number of abortions on the labour ward at our hospital is in fact a tiny percentage of the workload, which in turn could allow the accommodation of conscientious objection with minimal effort, this judgment, with its constraints and narrow interpretation, has resulted in the provision of a conscience clause which now in practice is meaningless for senior midwives on a labour ward,” they said. . . [Full Text]


Ruling in favour of freedom of conscience to be appealed

The National Health Service of Greater Glasgow and Clyde, regional provider of state health care, will attempt to overturn an appeal court ruling favourable to freedom of conscience for health care workers by appealing to Britain’s Supreme Court.  Two midwives who, for reasons of conscience, refused to participate in the supervision and support of staff providing abortions successfully appealed a lower court ruling against them.  The judgement of the appeal court was given in April.  [Irish Post]

Should medical staff be able to opt out on grounds of conscience?

Click on the image to watch the discussion.

Scotland Tonight looked at the issue of conscientious objection by health care workers following the successful appeal of midwives against an order to delegate, supervise, or support staff involved in providing abortions.

Discussion participants were Paul Tully of the pro-life group, Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, health journalist Pennie Taylor and employment lawyer Donald MacKinnon.

Appeal succeeds in Scotland: freedom of conscience upheld for midwives

A panel of judges of the Court of Session in Edinburgh, Scotland, has ruled in favour of two midwives appealing a 2012 decision by a judge of the same court.  Lady Dorrian,  Lord Mackay of Drumadoon and Lord McEwan have ruled that the midwifery sisters, Mary Doogan, and Concepta Wood, cannot be compelled to supervise the provison of abortion by the National Health Services of Greater Glasgow and Clyde.

The two women were labour ward co-ordinators at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow and had long identified themselves as having conscientious objection to abortion.  However, in 2007, when the labour ward was made responsible for abortions, they were ordered to supervise, support and delegate staff providing the procedure.  They challenged the order as a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights on the grounds that it made them morally complicit in abortion by requiring their participation in the process of providing it.

The appelate judges 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.” [Text of the ruling]

NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde is considering an appeal of the decision. [Herald Scotland] [The Telegraph]




Court hears appeal of midwives ordered to participate in abortion services

A panel of three judges in Edinburgh is hearing arguments in an appeal by two midwives who were ordered to supervise provision of abortion in the National Health Service Greater Glasgow and Clyde region.  A lower court ruled that the protection of conscience provision in the 1967 Abortion Act did not apply to them.  [BBC] The case turns upon the definition of “participation,” which is not set out in the Act.




Midwives to appeal court ruling against freedom of conscience

Two midwives who were ordered to supervise the provision of abortions are appealing the decision of the Court of Session in Edinburgh against freedom of conscience.[Herald Scotland]

Herald Scotland: