Appeal hearing in midwives’ legal battle

By Dave Andrusko

Editor’s note. The first three background paragraphs of this post were provided by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC)

Midwives Mary Doogan, left, and Concepta Wood

Midwives Mary Doogan, left, and Concepta Wood

Mary Doogan and Connie Wood, midwifery sisters from Glasgow’s Southern General Hospital, will go to the Inner House of the Court of Session in Edinburgh, Scotland Tuesday January 8, to appeal against a decision that they must supervise staff midwives performing abortions, despite their conscientious objection to abortion.

The Abortion Act 1967 states that no one with a conscientious objection can be obliged to participate in abortion procedures.

Last February, Lady Smith, sitting in the Outer House of the Court of Session, ruled that the midwifery sisters did not have the protection of the Act’s conscience clause, and so must accept the hospital management’s instruction to supervise staff midwives in performing abortion procedures. They are not required, the judge ruled, to provide direct “hands on” assistance, but could be expected to allocate staff midwives to carry out abortions, and give those midwives support and advice throughout the procedure. The abortion procedure in question usually involves the administration of several drugs and typically takes a day to complete.

The dispute arose when Doogan’s and Wood’s 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.

Central to their defense was that previously they were not called on to delegate, supervise or support staff engaged in the care of patients undergoing abortions. They also claimed that the health board decision  breached their freedom of religion rights under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

However, in  a decision handed down last February, Lady Smith was unpersuaded. 

“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.”

At the time of Judge Smith’s ruling, Doogan issued a statement in which she 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.

SPUC voiced its disappointment with the verdict.

“SPUC has supported the midwives in bringing their case, and will now be considering their further legal options with them,” said Paul Tully, general secretary of the SPUC.

“Both the midwives have served for over 20 years at the Southern General Hospital, caring for many thousands of mothers and babies,” Tully said. “The case arose when the hospital demanded that all senior midwives must take responsibility for overseeing mid-term and late term abortions. Since 2008 the hospital has insisted that these abortions, mostly for suspected disability in the foetus, must be conducted on the labour ward, rather than the gynaecology ward where most early abortions are performed.”

The late abortion procedure, called “Medical Termination of Pregnancy” (or MTOP)  “entails the mother being given drugs to induce labour, and then having to go through labour and deliver the baby,” Tully said. “In more advanced pregnancies the baby is killed first by an ultrasound-guided lethal injection while still in the womb.”

The hospital’s labor ward delivers 6,000 babies every year, Tully explained, “but is also required to provide about 1-3 MTOPs each week–a number which has increased since a special unit for diagnosing disability in the womb was transferred to the Southern General Hospital in January 2010.”

Tully concluded, “The conscience clause was included in the Abortion Act to assure [Members of Parliament] that no one would be forced to participate in abortions.”

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