The Royal College of Midwives and BPAS welcome landmark Supreme Court judgment against two midwives who refused to supervise and support colleagues providing abortion care
The UK’s highest court has upheld an appeal against a Scottish court ruling which would have enabled healthcare staff to refuse to carry out any duties related to abortion care, however far removed from the procedure itself.
The case centred on two Glasgow midwives, who were at no point asked to participate in an abortion or provide any care for the woman undergoing a procedure, but who believed their right to conscientious objection was breached by being asked to answer telephone calls to book women in for care, and delegate to or supervise staff providing that care to women. These women were primarily ending a pregnancy after a diagnosis of foetal anomaly. Scotland’s Inner House of the Court of Session ruled in 2013 that they should indeed have legal protection from such tasks. The RCM and bpas intervened in the case as that ruling allowed for a widely expanded interpretation of conscientious objection that could have seriously jeopardised women’s care in hospitals around the UK.
The 1967 Abortion Act includes a clause that allows healthcare professionals to refuse to participate in abortion care, provided it is not an emergency situation. Explaining their decision to uphold the appeal against the 2013 ruling, the Supreme Court judges said parliament was likely to have envisaged that right to object as being restricted to “actually taking part, that is actually performing that tasks involved in the course of treatment.”
Lady Hale, Deputy President of the court, said:
“Parliament will not have had in mind the hospital managers who decide to offer an abortion service, the administrators who decide how best that service can be organised within the hospital, the caterers who provide the patients with food and the cleaners who provide them with a safe and hygienic environment. Yet all may be said in some way to be facilitating the carrying out of the treatment involved. The managerial and supervisory tasks carried out by the labour ward co-ordinators are closer to these roles than they are to the role of providing the treatment which brings about the termination of the pregnancy. “Participate” in my view means taking part in a “hands-on” capacity.”
Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said:
"We welcome this ruling. bpas supports the right to refuse to work in abortion care, not least because women deserve better than being treated by those who object to their choice. But the law as it stands already provides healthcare workers with these protections. Extending this protection to tasks not directly related to the abortion would be to the detriment of women needing to end a pregnancy and the healthcare staff committed to providing that care. There are enough barriers in the way of women who need an abortion without further obstacles being thrown in their way.”
Gillian Smith, RCM Director for Scotland, said:
“This ruling is sensible and both women and midwives will welcome it. The ruling gives extensive definition to complex clinical and other situations, in regard to whether conscientious objection applies or not. Midwives and other clinicians will benefit from this ruling’s clarity and women will be able to continue to exercise their choice over their reproductive rights.”
The Royal College of Midwives (RCM), a professional organisation, and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) intervened in the case, as they believed such a broad and unprecedented interpretation of conscientious objection, applicable across the UK, would effectively have enabled a tiny number of staff opposed to abortion to make women’s care undeliverable in many NHS settings.
For more information please contact bpas at email@example.com and 07788 725185 or the RCM on 020 7312 3456.
For further information please contact the RCM Press Office on 020 7312 3456, firstname.lastname@example.org.
bpas is a charity which provides reproductive healthcare services including pregnancy counselling, abortion care, miscarriage management and contraception from more than 40 centres across the UK. It supports and advocates for reproductive choice. More information can be found at bpas.org
About The Royal College of Midwives
The RCM is the voice of midwifery. We are the UK’s only trade union and professional organisation led by midwives for midwives. The vast majority of the midwifery profession are our members. The RCM promotes midwifery, quality maternity services and professional standards. We support and represent our members individually and collectively in all four UK countries. We influence on behalf of our members and for the interests of the women and families for which they care.