Rising numbers of doctors refusing to be involved in abortions have prompted Europe’s leading human rights organisation to consider moves to stop them from acting in accordance with their consciences.
Members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe were this week due to vote on a resolution to crack down on “the problem of unregulated use of conscientious objection”.
Proposed by British Socialist member Christine McCafferty, former Labour MP for the Calder Valley, the resolution calls for the removal of the right of doctors to opt out of referring women for abortions.
It says all doctors must direct women seeking an abortion to people who will provide the procedure rather than simply give them information or inform them of their right to see another doctor, which is the current practice under British law.
The resolution will also “oblige the healthcare provider to provide the desired treatment to which the patient is legally entitled despite his or her conscientious objection … when referral to another healthcare provider is not possible” – for instance when there is no “equivalent practitioner within a reasonable distance”.
It calls for a register of doctors who object and a complaints mechanism for women who feel aggrieved by a refusal of a doctor to either grant an abortion or to perform the procedure directly.
Miss McCafferty said the Council is “concerned that the unregulated use of conscientious objection disproportionately affects women, notably those having low incomes or living in rural areas”.
She said: “There is a need to balance the right of conscientious objection of an individual not to perform a certain medical procedure with the responsibility of the profession and the right of each patient to access lawful medical care in a timely manner.”
The resolution, if passed, will be non-binding but it will be used to exert pressure on governments to tighten up laws on conscientious objection.
Anthony Ozimic of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children said: “Council of Europe member states will be under pressure effectively to abolish in law and practice conscientious objection within medicine.”
The Strasbourg-based Council was set up in 1949 to further European integration by harmonising human rights laws. It bases its work on the European Convention on Human Rights and it includes the European Court of Human Rights, to which Europeans can bring cases if they believe that a member state has violated their rights.
Conscientious objection is recognised as a fundamental human right in international law whereas abortion is not. Members of the European Union retain their sovereign powers to decide their own policies.
Yet Miss McCafferty’s resolution comes just two years after the Council adopted a resolution calling for member states to recognise abortion as a universal human right, and to grant women unrestricted access to the procedure, so it is widely anticipated that it stands a good chance of success when it is put to the vote by members of the social, health and family affairs committee.
The resolution will need to be ratified by the 47-strong Committee of Ministers, including Foreign Secretary William Hague, before it becomes formal policy.
The move comes amid reports that women in such countries as Austria are being forced to travel overseas to end their pregnancies because so many doctors are opting out.
In the Lazio region of Italy, which covers Rome, an estimated 86 per cent of doctors refuse to deal with abortions and in Britain Baroness Royall, the former health spokeswoman, has also admitted that more and more doctors are shunning the practice.
Dr Michael Jarmulowicz of the Catholic Medical Association said: “Every individual of whatever faith or none has to act according to their consciences. If they don’t act according to their consciences they are doing wrong.
“No one individual has a right to say ‘my wish overrides your conscience’.”
He added: “This is very clearly an attack on people of faith, who are more likely to have an objection to abortion than those who have none, though there are many atheists who recognise abortion as wrong, especially on any grounds. It is an example of the rising intolerance which the Pope has urged us to stand against in witness to our faith.”