Abortions appeal victory for Catholic midwives

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By a Newsnet reporter

Two Catholic midwives employed by NHS Greater Glasgow Health Board have won their appeal in the Court of Session in Edinburgh against their employer’s insistence that they should supervise staff involved in pregnancy terminations.

The midwives, Concepta Woods and Mary Duggan, had previously lost a case last year in the same court, where they argued that their right to concientious objection extended to supervisory roles, even though they themselves were not directly involved.

The midwives argued that their employer’s insistence that they provide supervision and support to staff caring for women having an abortion amounted to “participation in treatment” and as such breached their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.

NHS Greater Glasgow had claimed that the conscientious objection clause in the 1967 Abortion Act was applicable only to active participation in a termination and did not provide an exemption from the midwives’ duty to supervise and support staff.  Following a change in management practice at the Southern General Hospital, the midwives found that they were expected to supervise staff who were carrying out late abortions.

After losing their first court case, the midwives announced that they would appeal.  The judges hearing the appeal, Lady Dorrian, Lord Mackay and Lord McEwan found in favour of the midwives and ruled: 

“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…

“The right is given because it is recognised that the process of abortion is felt by many people to be morally repugnant… It is a matter on which many people have strong moral and religious convictions, and the right of conscientious objection is given out of respect for those convictions and not for any other reason.

“It is in keeping with the reason for the exemption that the wide interpretation which we favour should be given to it … It follows that the appeal should succeed.”

In a statement Ms Duggan said:

“Connie and I are absolutely delighted with today’s judgement from the Court of Session, which recognises and upholds our rights as labour ward midwifery sisters to withdraw from participating in any treatment that would result in medical termination of pregnancy.

“In holding all life to be sacred from conception to natural death, as midwives we have always worked in the knowledge we have two lives to care for throughout labour; a mother and that of her unborn child.

“Today’s judgement is a welcome affirmation of the rights of all midwives to withdraw from the practice that would violate the conscience and which over time, would indeed debar many from entering what has always been a very rewarding and noble profession. It is with great relief we can now return to considerations that are all to do with child birth and midwifery practice and less to do with legal matters.”

In a statement, NHS Greater Glasgow aNd Clyde Health Board said:

“We note the outcome of the appeal and will be considering our options with our legal advisers over the next few days.”