Where does conscientious objection begin? The recent case of the Glasgow midwives raises difficult questions

Bad news generally dominates the press. So it is good to be able to highlight a small item of good news: that Washington District Court Judge Ronald B Leighton has ruled as unconstitutional the attempt by the Washington State Board of Pharmacy (under pressure from the state governor, Planned Parenthood and the Northwest Women’s Law centre) to compel a few objecting pharmacists to stock and dispense the Plan B morning-after pill in violation of their deeply held beliefs – or close shop. This was in spite of there being no evidence that consumers were unable to buy the product elsewhere. The Judge ruled that conscience formed by “a sincere religious belief” that so-called emergency contraception “terminates a human life” should be respected.

This reminded me of the case of Patrick McCrystal, a Belfast pharmacist who left his job in 1993 having decided he could no longer, in good faith, dispense the pill or other contraceptives. He was unemployed for three years: “No-one wants to employ a pharmacist who wouldn’t dispense the pill” he commented.

It also brings to mind the very recent case of the two Glasgow Catholic midwives who, when abortions were moved to the ordinary labour ward of the hospital at which they worked, decided that in conscience they could not delegate, supervise or support other staff who were engaged in the care of mothers having abortions. In their case the judge, Lady Smith, overruled their objection, stating that as “the nature of their duties” did not “require them to …terminate pregnancies directly” they were not covered by the conscientious objection clause in the 1967 Abortion Act.

It all depends on how you interpret the word “participate” which is used in the Act. There is “direct participation” and there is “indirect participation.” For those with an active conscience there is very little difference between the two. For the Washington pharmacists, as for Patrick McCrystal, if you dispense an abortifacient you are complicit in something you know to be wrong.

The medical receptionist who felt hat she could not, in conscience, type out a letter of referral for an abortion, felt the same. So did a friend of mine who, at the time employed as a cleaner at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, felt that in conscience he could not agree to clean a surgical room in preparation for an abortion, when he was faced with this request after his normal schedules had been changed.

Or what about the hypothetical situation of a taxi driver who is asked by a young, female customer to drive her to a well-known “clinic” in a leafy suburb? The old film, “Judgement at Nuremburg”, brilliantly shows what happens when no-one down the long chain of participation and involvement in unethical processes, ever questions what they are doing or whether in conscience they should say: “The buck stops here.”