29/02/2012 15:21 GMT | Updated 29/02/2012 15:47 GMT

Catholic Midwives Lose Legal Fight To Avoid Assisting In Abortions

Two Catholic midwives who lost a legal bid challenging a health board's decision that they were not entitled to refuse to delegate, supervise or support staff involved in abortion procedures have said they are "very disappointed and greatly saddened" by the decision.

Mary Doogan, 57, and Concepta Wood, 51, consider it "abhorrent" to be told to "assist in" or "facilitate any action" leading to the termination of a woman's pregnancy.

The midwives said that, as conscientious objectors, they are entitled to refuse to delegate, supervise and support staff taking part in abortions or providing care to patients during the process.

They argued that being required to supervise staff involved in abortions is a violation of their human rights and took their case against NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde to the Court of Session in Edinburgh.

But a judge today ruled the midwives did not have direct involvement in the procedure to which they object.

After the hearing, Ms Doogan said: "Connie Wood and I are both very disappointed and greatly saddened by today's verdict.

"For most of our 20-plus years of employment as midwifery sisters at the Southern General Hospital, we have been proud to be associated with a maternity unit in which the right of all midwifery staff to freedom of conscience has been acknowledged, protected and upheld with no detrimental outcome to any mother whatsoever.

"Neither Connie nor I stand in judgment of any woman who chooses to terminate her pregnancy for whatever reasons. We are more than aware of the difficult choices that some expectant mothers may be faced with in a crisis pregnancy.

"However, in holding to the view that life should be protected from conception to natural death, neither do we wish to be judged for exercising what is our legal right to refuse to participate in the process of medical termination of pregnancy.

"We wish now to take some time to consider all options that are available to us - including appeal - before making any further comment."

In the midwives' submission, they said the delegation, supervision and support of staff providing care to women undergoing a termination did amount to "participation in treatment".

They said the health board decision also breached their rights under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), guaranteeing the right to freedom of religion.

But Lady Smith said it was not shown that their Article 9 rights were being interfered with. She said the midwives had agreed to take up the roles of labour ward co-ordinators, although they now took objection to the "job content".

The judge said: "I am not satisfied that the petitioners are entitled to the declarators or orders for reduction, direction and interdict that they seek.

"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.

"Further, they knowingly accepted that these duties were to be part of their job."

The midwifery sisters were employed as labour ward co-ordinators at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow. The court heard Ms Doogan had been absent due to ill health since March 2010 and Ms Wood had transferred to other work due to the dispute.

Both women registered their conscientious objection to participation in pregnancy terminations "many years ago" but became concerned when all medical terminations were moved to the labour ward in 2007.

They said that prior to that they were not called on to delegate, supervise or support staff treating or caring for patients undergoing termination procedures.

This was denied by the health board.

The health board said it recognised the midwives' right not to participate in abortions under the terms of the Abortion Act.

Paul Tully, general secretary of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), said: "We are very disappointed by the judgment. SPUC has supported the midwives in bringing their case, and will now be considering their further legal options with them."

An NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde spokesman said: "We are pleased with the outcome of the judicial review. This is a significant judgment regarding the employment and responsibilities of midwives throughout the NHS in the UK.

"NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde recognises the absolute right of staff to conscientiously object to participate in treatments authorised within the Abortion Act 1967.

"We are fully supportive of staff who hold a position of conscientious objection and make every effort to accommodate them, however at the same time we have an unequivocal duty of care to ensure the safety of our patients and as such we must balance this responsibility with the rights of the conscientious objector."