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Scottish court rules midwives can’t object to overseeing abortions

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Catholic News Service

A Scottish court ruled that two senior Catholic midwives have no right to conscientiously object to overseeing staff involved in late-term abortions in a state-run hospital.

The Court of Session, Scotland’s supreme civil court, ruled that Mary Doogan, 57, and Concepta Wood, 51, could not invoke the conscience clause of the 1967 Abortion Act to opt out of their duties at Glasgow’s Southern General Hospital because they were not directly involved in performing the abortions.

The pair, who worked as labor ward coordinators, had been obliged to delegate, supervise or support staff involved in performing up to three late-term abortions a week. They claimed that such indirect involvement made them culpable in procedures they found to be abhorrent.

But the judge, Lady (Anne) Smith, said in a Feb. 29 ruling that the conscience opt-out of the 1967 act was qualified, adding that nothing the midwifery nurses “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,” the judge said. “The nature of their duties does not, in fact, require them to provide treatment to terminate pregnancies directly.”

In a Feb. 29 statement, Doogan said both midwives were greatly saddened by the verdict.

“Neither Connie nor I stand in judgment of any woman who chooses to terminate her pregnancy for whatever reasons,” she said. “We are more than aware of the difficult choices that some expectant mothers may be faced with in a crisis pregnancy.

“However, in holding to the view that life should be protected from conception to natural death, neither do we wish to be judged for exercising what is our legal right to refuse to participate in the process of medical termination of pregnancy. We wish now to take some time to consider all options that are available to us, including appeal,” she said.

Paul Tully, general secretary of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, a lobby group which has supported the nurses, said his organization “will now be considering their further legal options” with the midwives.

Doogan has been absent from work for two years because of ill health and Wood moved to other work because of the dispute, the court was told.

The midwives have served for more than 20 years at the hospital and the dispute arose only when their employers — National Health Service Greater Glasgow and Clyde — demanded in 2007 that mid-term and late-term abortions would be performed on the labor ward rather than on the gynecology ward.

During the case, which was heard in January, the midwives said attempts by their employers to compel them to oversee such abortions also breached their rights under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of religion.

Archbishop Mario Conti of Glasgow said the ruling caused him “deep concern.”

“I wish to put on record my admiration for the courage of the midwives who have, at very great cost to themselves, fought to uphold the right to follow one’s conscience,” Archbishop Conti said in a Feb. 29 statement.

“It is fundamental to the functioning of society that all citizens act in accordance with an informed conscience,” the archbishop said.

“Any law or judgment that fails to recognize this contradicts that most basic freedom and duty which we all have as human beings, namely to follow our conscience and act accordingly,” he added. “Any assault on this principle undermines the very basis of the law itself and society’s moral cohesion, which the law should seek to guarantee.”

Neil Addison, a Catholic barrister and the director of the Thomas More Legal Centre, a Catholic charity dedicated to upholding religious freedom, said the courts had used the European Convention on Human Rights “to protect murderous terrorists but have refused to use it for two midwives who do not want to kill unborn children.”

“What is more surprising is the extremely restrictive interpretation the judge has put on the conscientious objection clause in Section 4 of the Abortion Act,” Addison said. “As the judge has interpreted it, believing Catholics, Muslims, etc, will never be able to take any form of supervisory or management role as midwives or nurses unless they are willing to be complicit in the provision of abortions.”

He said the decision was “in stark contrast to recent decisions in the United States courts, which have applied the American First Amendment to protect the conscience rights of pharmacists who refused to dispense the morning-after pill.”