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The Catholic midwives case – a victory for freedom of conscience

The ruling in Glasgow will effect the NHS south of the border, too

By on Friday, 26 April 2013

A midwife and expectant mother.

A midwife and expectant mother.

It was good to learn from Catholic World News on Wednesday that the Appeals Court in Edinburgh has now ruled that in the case of two Catholic midwives, they have the right to refuse indirect involvement in abortions. This ruling made it on to the 6 o’clock news on Radio 4 that same day, so it is seen as of some significance. Last year, healthcare officials in Glasgow had ruled that the two midwives, Mary Doogan aged 58 and Concepta Wood aged 52, who worked as labour ward coordinators the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow, should be required to schedule and coordinate abortion coverage, on the grounds that this would not violate their conscience as they would not be directly participating in the abortions themselves.

An earlier appeal by the midwives had failed when Lady Smith stated at the time that “Nothing they have to do as part of their duties terminates a woman’s pregnancy. They are sufficiently removed from direct involvement as it seems to me, to afford appropriate respect for, and accommodation of their beliefs.”

The two midwives disagreed with her, understandably. To be involved at any stage in the whole deadly process of abortion, whether assisting directly or, in this case, coordinating nurses’ schedules so that others would do it instead, is to be complicit in the killing of unborn life. I once knew a hospital orderly who refused to clean the operating room where an abortion was due to take place; he was relieved of his duties. And what of secretaries who make the appointments, chemists who hand out the abortifacient pills or the taxi drivers who might carry out the transport? Being involved at any level might carry its own sense of unease, reluctance and wrong-doing.

In this case, as reported in the Guardian, the Edinburgh court ruled that the “conscience clause” of the 1967 Abortion Act protected health care personnel against any compulsory involvement in the process. The wording goes, “The right of conscientious objection extends not only to the actual medical or surgical termination but to the whole process of treatment given for that purpose. The right is given because it is recognised that the process of abortion is felt by many people to be morally repugnant.” Archbishop Philip Tartaglia of Glasgow called the ruling a “victory for freedom of conscience and for common sense.” And so it is.

It is also likely to have ramifications for the NHS this side of the border. Dr David Jones, director of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre, pointed out that this ruling contradicts the General Medical Council’s latest guidance for Britain’s doctors, which came into force only on Monday and which stated that “rights to conscientious objection were limited to refusal to participate in the procedure itself”. All pro-life personnel in this country will have watched this case very carefully. There will be repercussions.

At the same time as this court case in Edinburgh, I have been trying not to follow the case of Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphian abortionist from the “house of horrors” as it has been described. I am cowardly; the thought of what went on in his clinic is almost unbearable to think about. A sober and sensible article on Life Site News by Judie Brown, entitled “The worst thing about the Gosnell trial: the public’s total apathy”, states the case better than I could: “We hear about a man who stored the tiny feet of his victims in glass jars but…we are not driven to act or to protect the innocent or to oppose abortion. Abortion has been around for 40 years now, and face it, every once in a while an abortionist makes a mistake, gets caught and sometimes goes on trial. But life goes on. Well, not really! Life does not go on and has not for more than 50 million human beings in America.” Brown concludes, “Gosnell’s story is a horror; he is in many ways the poster boy for murder and mayhem in our nation. He has terrorised and killed babies, maimed women, and only God knows what else with impunity since 1972…The Gosnell trial is about apathy, that dismisses humanity for the sake of convenience.”

Is there so much difference between what went on in that hellish Philadelphian abortuary, as described in court by the nurses who worked there, and what goes on behind closed doors in more sanitised and better regulated surroundings over here?

  • Clodius

    Yes, the Gosnell case is too awful to read about. This is what a liberal (read ‘indifferent’ society) has wrought. But it’s not everyone who is guilty of apathy. The blame should be sheeted home to where it properly resides: the denialists and liberal apologists. Christianity has been in paroxysms of self-criticism for too long. We are apologising for ourselves?? We are the war mongers, abortionists, debasers of marriage and the family, spruikers for commercialism, belligerents in the war on the needy? I don’t think so. The loss to Western society if Christianity goes will not be felt in churches and presbyteries but in the ordinary lives of people given the thin succour of secular humanism.

  • Anthony Spuc Ozimic

    Abortion ruling welcomed by SPUC who backed Glasgow midwives

  • Jonathan West

    You call this a victory for freedom of conscience. And I can see how it can reasonably be presented that way.

    But it also seems to me that you oppose abortion in all circumstances, even where the woman requesting it is exercising her freedom of conscience in doing so.

    So, if I were you, I would be a bit hesitant about promoting freedom of conscience for Catholics if you are not prepared to offer the same freedom of conscience to those who disagree with the Catholic position on abortion. Because a freedom only to agree with you is no freedom at all.

  • Julian Lord

    Abortion is to be opposed by all men and women of conscience because it is an act of murder.

    But you’re right in one sense — it’s actually a victory against the totalitarian secularist political desires of contemporary atheist anti-humanism.

  • Jonathan West

    You’re redefining “all men and women of conscience” to mean “those who agree with you that abortion is murder”.

    The Abortion Act does not require anybody to have an abortion, it does not require anybody to perform an abortion. Your prohibition would be totalitarian in that it would apply to those who disagree with you on the subject of abortion.

  • la catholic state

    That’s one way to describe murder of the defenceless innocent, I suppose…….the exercise of ‘freedom’. Must be a new pagan name for murder.

  • polycarped

    Jonathan is talking about freedom – don’t you understand?! The problem is that his understanding of freedom is trapped within the confines of the dictatorship of relativism that he can’t see past.

  • NatOns

    Good news, yet do not place your trust in princes .. let alone trust the god of this world. This decision offers some protection to present mid-wives .. and perhaps by extension to Catholic staff working in Operating Theatres that perform abortions on an industrial scale. What this ruling does not guarantee is that those Catholics who choose to live by the Faith will hereafter be welcomed (or perhaps even allowed) into Health Services posts that require staff to cover their abortion services – as part of their job; and that would included a vast swathe of gynaecological and obstetric services (which do not separate the provision).

    The Health Services can simply get around this issue by asking employees contemplating work in Operating Theatres, Gynaecology or Obstetrics to choose between i) offering the abortion service and ii) contemplating another area of service that does not offer it. After all, the post is not made to fit the individual’s conscience, hence the individual must address his/ her conscience before applying for any particular post .. even if that employment is in Midwifery or Surgery (if these posts include the delivery of abortion services etc). For the employer the task of providing a lawful service within its legitimate requirements does not demand that those with moral objections to that service must be employed in posts that provide this service, or face charges of discrimination; the employee must agree to do the type of work involved in the post (or seek another).

    Not such a rosy picture as it might at first appear, since the it is not in the employers interest to hire staff who will not do the work required – on moral grounds. Catholics (and others who do express their conscientious objection to abortion) can look forward to a diminishing field of work in the National Health Service .. as will so be the case with Catholics at work in education – and eventually perhaps with Catholics providing education. A Catholic hospital need not offer an abortion service, but how much longer it may function in services aimed at Gynaecology and Obstetrics without this service is moot – for purely financial reasons; of more pressing concern is the actual choice exercised by Catholics in the National Health Service posts which do require covering abortion services as merely part of their job .. or seeking alternative employment.

  • Julian Lord

    You’re redefining “all men and women of conscience” to mean “those who agree with you that abortion is murder”

    You’re the one redefining the concept of “conscience” to include the callous termination of infant human life in the womb, or in the case of a certain American, outside.

  • Kevin

    The legalisation of slavery would not require anyone to have slaves either.

  • Recusant

    These are asymmetric freedoms though. The freedom to do nothing has no impact on anyone else, the freedom to have an abortion has a very real consequence for someone else. The freedom for me to swing my fist ends at your chin, because that is the point at which someone else suffers. The freedom of a woman to exercise her freedom of conscience ends at the umbilical chord, because at the other end of it lies another human – with its own genetic uniqueness, its own potential and its own entitlements that must be respected.

  • ZuZuLamarr


  • teigitur


  • teigitur

    It does not “require” but it certainly “encourages” in many circumstances, not least if the unborn is deemed to be less than man’s idea of perfect.

  • LocutusOP

    It seems to be a victory for the rule of law as well.

    It’s amazing that the victims in these sorts of cases always seem to be Catholic (the healthcare workers, not the children who are dismembered). In a way it’s a compliment to the Catholic faith.

  • lewispbuckingham

    Dear JW< just looked at this board.

    There is a bit of a fuss in Australia because some women want to abort their unborn children because they happen to be of the wrong sex.

    The editorial calls for doctors that commit such an abortion to be deregistered.
    But then it's perfectly legal.
    The more I see of the Abortion argument, the more sympathetic I am for those who are killed off.
    When I walk down a street now, I see the survivors.

  • $20596475

    Protection under the law for conscientious objection is a great strength of our democracy and is visible evidence of the way our society is tolerant of minorities. To those who claim that we are “totalitarian” ought to reflect long and hard on this.

    Whatever our personal opinion is on abortion it is obvious that many have strongly held objections to it. That being so it seems odd to me that any midwife holding such a conscientious objection would seek work in a department where abortions were likely to be carried out.

    If my understanding of this case is correct the two ladies involved went out of their way, aided and abetted by a shady legal religious group, to make an issue out of it. When they objected to their duties they were offered any number of alternatives which would not trouble their conscience. However they were all refused, so that this case could be mounted.

    We will have to see whether a further challenge is mounted because from what I saw the NHS trust involved went out of their way to try to accommodate them, and this “victory” is much more to do with making a political statement than achieving protection for those with a conscientious objection.

  • Julian Lord

    What a ray of sunshine !!

  • Neil Addison

    Having read both judgments there is absolutely no suggestion that

    “When they objected to their duties they were offered any number of
    alternatives which would not trouble their conscience. However they were
    all refused, so that this case could be mounted.”

    as you allege. On the contrary it is c;ear from the Judgment that the Midwives themselves were trying to avoid confrontation with the NHS

    As for your remark

    “it seems odd to me that any midwife holding such a conscientious objection would seek work in a department where abortions were likely to be carried out.”

    Can i point out that these Midwives were working in the “Labour Ward” ie it was the decision of the NHS to move Abortions into the Labour Ward that caused the problem. The job of a widwife is to help babies be born not to kill them

  • $20596475

    That they were offered other positions was in the statement put out by the Trust at the time of the original judgement. That they were being financially supported and encouraged by a group of politically motivated Christian activists is beyond question.

    Whatever your personal views are on abortion we can all agree that it is legal in the UK and that the NHS does provide them. Therefore, those who meet the legal requirements have a right to receive an abortion.

    All employees, including those working for the NHS, have contractual obligations to their employer. A conscientious objection can be enshrined in law but where competing rights collide a judgement has to be made as to which trumps the other.

    In most circumstances sensible compromises are arrived at. No-one wishes to force people to do things which they find distasteful. However, that tolerance should not be used politically to try to force society into positions it does not want.

    As I understand things the NHS managers involved bent over backwards to try to help these ladies, but they had also to consider the rights of their clients.

    Any midwife will know that the NHS performs abortions. If they cannot accept that then they really should not be working for them. The job of a midwife is, like any other job, to perform their contracted duties. Performing an abortion is not, under UK law, killing babies.

  • Neil Addison

    Conscientious Objection to Abortion is also part of the law and supersedes contractual obligations . The NHS did not lean over backwards to try to accomodate these midwives quite the opposite as is clear from the judgment. Performing Abortions is not part of the normal job of a Midwife in any part of the world it is in fact the direct opposite of the normal task of a midwife.

  • Frank


  • $20596475

    I have already acknowledged that conscientious objection is specified in the Abortion Act. However, it is the responsibility of those claiming it to establish their claim. The judgement depends upon a fairly technical argument over whether these ladies had a claim, or not. The NHS Trust never tried to argue that conscientious objection did not exist, only that the two ladies were not in a position to claim it. They claim they did all they needed to do to help the two ladies. Not only did the parties disagree, so it seems do those making the judgments. Who knows what will happen if, as i anticipate, it gets referred for further review.

    As to the involvement of midwives in performing abortions anywhere in the world I regret you are wrong. It is quite a normal part of their duties in many countries, including for instance the USA and South Africa. The RCN here recommends a greater involvement than at present.

  • Frank

    A midwife is a person trained to assist women in childbirth.

  • Frank

    Can I ask a question?
    Earlier you said you understood that “any number of alternatives were offered”, that these were refused, that the two ladies “went out of their way”, NHS managers “bent over backwards” and other statements.
    Neil refutes this on the basis that he has read the judgments and you do not contradict him.
    Was there any basis for making your claims in the first place or do you still hold these to be true?

  • $20596475

    Yes, it was based on the statement issued by the NHS trust after the judgement in their favour handed down by Lady Smith. I don’t have it to hand now, but might be able to find it again. Right now it being submerged by all the reports on the latest judgement.

  • $20596475

    They jobs, and training, involve very much more than just childbirth. Try here for a job description:-

    Abortion is not included because they are not currently permitted to be directly responsible. They can though be responsible for the care of a woman.

  • Frank

    I did check this out and I agree that you are right to say that their training and jobs involve more than just the actual childbirth. It also involves taking care of the mother and baby over a longer period of time.

    Nowhere can I find anything in this that would suggest a midwife should be involved in abortion and I’m not surprised since it would seem to me, and to very senior midwives in my family, to be a contradiction.

    Many people in the health service and the general public, religious or otherwise, are very uncomfortable about having abortions take place in close proximity to childbirths. Not least of all because of the effect it can have on mothers-to-be and those seeking an abortion.