Dr Peter Saunders

Catholic midwives, abortion and the cost of conscience

Dr Peter Saunders is CMF Chief Executive and was formerly a general surgeon. He also serves on the boards of the International Christian Medical and Dental Association and Coalition for Marriage and is campaign director for the Care Not Killing Alliance.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CMF.

Two Roman Catholic midwives have lost a legal battle to avoid taking part in abortion procedures on grounds of conscientious objection.

Midwifery sisters Mary Doogan, 57, and Concepta Wood, 51, (pictured) said being forced to supervise staff taking part in abortions violated their human rights. The women had sought to challenge NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde on the issue.

But a judge at the Court of Session ruled the midwives did not have ‘direct involvement’ in terminating pregnancies.

The case brings further ‘clarity’ to the conscientious objection clause in the Abortion Act 1967.

The midwifery sisters were employed as labour ward co-ordinators at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow and had given notice of their conscientious objection under the abortion law many years ago, but became concerned when all medical terminations were moved to the labour ward in 2007.

They claimed that previously they were not called on to delegate, supervise or support staff engaged in the care of patients undergoing terminations.

The midwives also claimed that the health board decision also breached their rights under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights which guarantees the right to freedom of religion.

But Lady Smith, the judge, said she was not satisfied that their Article 9 rights were being interfered with and that their right of conscientious objection was not unqualified and they had agreed to take up the roles of labour ward co-ordinators, although they now took objection to the job content.

She added that because ‘the nature of their duties’ did not ‘require them to provide treatment to terminate pregnancies directly’ they were not covered by the conscientious objection clause in the Abortion Act either.

Section 4 of the Abortion Act 1967,’Conscientious objection to participation in treatment’ reads as follows:

(1) Subject to sub-section (2) of this section, no person shall be under any duty whether by contract or by any statutory or other legal requirement to participate in any treatment authorised by this Act to which he has a conscientious objection.

The full scope of this clause has not been fully tested in the courts but centres around what meaning is given to the word ‘participate’. Whilst it is clear that it covers those directly involved in the abortion itself, the Janaway case ruling (see note below) held that it did not cover a receptionist who refused to type an abortion referral letter.

It appears now that it does not cover those who are asked to ‘delegate, supervise or support’ staff carrying out abortions either.

This obviously creates real difficulties for anyone with a moral objection put in this position, many of whom (including myself) would view delegation, supervision or support as participation.

Imagine for example had they been working in another country and been asked to ‘supervise’ activities that were legal there but that most people in Britain would regard as highly unethical – such as euthanasia of people with dementia, amputation for stealing, female circumcision or the torture of political prisoners.

Most Britons I suspect would back their right to refuse. It is only because abortion is regarded as trivial in Britain that a case like this does not generate huge public outrage. But that tells us far more about the eroded conscience of the British public than it does about morality of abortion.

Part of being a good citizen involves exercising our democratic rights to ensure that unjust laws are kept off the statute books.

But if unethical laws like the Abortion Act, which has led to over seven million babies losing their lives since 1967, are passed, then obeying such laws involves disobeying God and the Bible is clear that there is a place for civil disobedience.

‘Supervising’ the shedding of innocent blood is not an option for Christians, even if the law does not allow us the option of conscientious objection.

When the King of Egypt ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill all male Hebrew children they refused to do so and God commended and rewarded them (Exodus 1:15-22).

Rahab the harlot similarly refused to co-operate with the king of Jericho in handing over the innocent Israelite spies and was later praised for her faith (Joshua 2:1-14; Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25)

The prospect of death did not stop Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refusing to bow down to the image of the king or Daniel persisting with public prayer (Daniel 4:6-8, 6:1-10).

When Peter and John were commanded by the Jewish authorities not to preach the Gospel they replied, ‘We must obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29).

So whilst recognising that we have an obligation to obey the governing authorities God has instituted (Romans 13:1-7; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13-14), nonetheless our obedience to him takes precedence if the law of the land requires us to disobey him. It is striking that these biblical examples include refusals to participate in shedding innocent blood.

Daniel and his three friends were rescued miraculously from their respective predicaments; but there is of course no guarantee that God will turn things in our favour if we are in a situation of having to disobey the law. The long list of heroes of faith in Hebrews 11 contains those who were delivered from the consequences of civil disobedience but also those who paid the price. And paying the price through facing discipline, job-loss, a fine or even imprisonment may be what God requires us to do.

I expect that in coming days we will increasingly be calling on Christian colleagues to support us, and Christian lawyers to advise and protect us in such circumstances.

We will no doubt win some battles and lose others – but regardless we have the confidence that we follow in the footsteps of a Saviour who in facing everything the greatest Empire on earth could throw at him, willingly carried the cross and emerged ultimately victorious.

I understand the Catholic midwives plan to appeal. I hope they do. The legal principle is worth fighting for. But whether they win or not, by making a stand on this issue, they have set a good example for others to follow.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’ (Matthew 5:10-12)

NOTE: For a thorough explanation of the current law on conscientious objection to abortion see ‘Conscientious objection to abortion – ethics, polemic and law’ by Charles Foster in the CMF journal Triple Helix.

Posted by Dr Peter Saunders
CMF Chief Executive



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