Medics' conscientious objection

Posted: 29th December 2014

RCJTwo devoutly Roman Catholic midwives who refused to take even supervisory roles in the termination of pregnancies have failed to convince the Supreme Court that their NHS employer trampled on their right to conscientiously object.

The women pointed to the terms of the Abortion Act 1967, which gives all medical professionals the right to choose not to ‘participate’ in abortions, except where the procedure is necessary to save a pregnant woman from death or serious injury to health. They were dissatisfied with the arrangements put in place by their employer to accommodate their objections but their grievances were rejected.

After the women mounted a successful judicial review challenge, their employer was directed to reconsider its policy in respect of conscientious objectors. However, in allowing the employer’s appeal, the Court found that, as a matter of pure statutory interpretation, the word ‘participate’ meant ‘actually taking part’.

The employer had rightly taken the view that delegation, supervision and support did not amount to ‘participating’ in abortions. Given the nature of the proceedings, wider issues as to whether the women’s human right to respect for their religious beliefs had been unlawfully restricted did not fall to be considered.