Supreme court rejects health workers’ case to ‘opt out’ of abortion support


The UK Supreme Court has rejected the case of Scottish midwives to refuse to support patients who terminate their pregnancy.

Mary Doogan and Connie Wood from the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow claimed the right to conscientious objection under the 1967 Abortion Act. They were not required to take any direct role in abortions, but challenged NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Board for the right to refuse to support staff or patients during the process.

However, Lady Hale rejected this on the grounds that conscientious objection in the 1967 act was on the basis of terminating the pregnancy and did not relate to “ordinary nursing and pastoral care”.

Questions on whether Doogan and Wood’s religious beliefs as Roman Catholics had been limited was deferred in the judgment to a future employment tribunal.

The judgment also highlighted the “duty of care owed to patients by members of the health care profession”, which requires cases of objection to be referred to another professional who can provide support.

Hale’s verdict was unanimously approved by the five members of the Court.

The court decision is significant in setting a precedent in the relationship between health care and ethics, as well as safeguarding access to abortion services.

Health groups including the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and Royal College of Midwives had said they were “deeply concerned” at the possibility of conscientious objection changing in this case.

They said it risked enabling “a tiny number of staff opposed to abortion to make women’s care undeliverable in some NHS settings in the UK”.

Access to abortion remains uneven. In northern and southern Ireland abortion is tightly regulated. As a result patients have to travel to the UK mainland to receive medical support.

The two midwives involved in the case said they were “saddened and extremely disappointed” at the outcome.

Picture courtesy of William Murphy