Wednesday 16 February 2011

SPUC defended successfully medics' rights to conscientious objection in high court

Monday's high court judgment, in which SPUC played a significant part, was not only important for the defence of women and unborn children but also for the defence of doctors and nurses who object in conscience to participation in abortion. I reproduce below a key extract from the judgment on conscientious objection (with some terms explained in square brackets).

BPAS wants to be allowed to give abortion drugs to women to take away and use elsewhere - so they don't have to take them in a clinic. But the law says that abortion "treatment" must be given at a hospital or clinic, so BPAS argued that administering abortion drugs was not part of the abortion treatment - only prescribing the drugs was 'treatment'. That is a radical argument, and SPUC pointed out to the court that if BPAS was right, and the law should be read in that way, then doctors, nurses and midwives who are sometimes asked to administer abortion drugs, especially in later abortions, would lose the right to opt out - because their conscientious objection (protected in the Abortion Act) is a right not to engage in "treatment" authorised in the Act. If administering drugs (whether oral drugs, pessaries, drips, etc) is not 'treatment' then medical staff have no right to object.

In the judgment, Mr Justice Supperstone, rejected the argument put forward by Ms Lieven the barrister for BPAS (the "Claimant") in these terms:
"Ms Lieven does not accept that the Claimant's interpretation of section 1 [treatment] of the Act is inconsistent with section 4 [conscientious objection] of the Act. Ms Gemma White, for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, intervening, submits that it is, as there will continue to be many situations in which medical professionals, in particular nurses and midwives, are asked to administer abortifacient drugs; if this claim is successful they will not be entitled to the protection of section 4 ... [BPAS' argument] is no answer, in my view, to Ms White's submission that Parliament clearly did not intend that an action which directly causes the termination of pregnancy should be outside the scope of section 4."
SPUC also provided the court with a crucial quotation from Hansard, as cited by the judge:
"It is to be noted that even in 1967 when terminations were normally by a surgical method, during a debate in Parliament on a clause which became section 4 of the Act, Mr Braine MP, the mover of the Amendment said "It is designed to take account of the fact that the termination of a pregnancy is not always and certainly may not in the future, be a surgical operation" (Hansard, 13 July 1967 at 1314). He added, "I am told that probably in the next decade, a safe chemical method of inducing therapeutic abortion may be developed and may be accepted by the medical profession." (at 1315)"
SPUC's research and legal advocacy work is absolutely vital in holding the line against attacks by the anti-life lobby. That is why we need you to donate, join, and/or leave a legacy to cover the considerable costs of that work. By supporting our work you are supporting the unborn, the disabled, the sick and the elderly and medical staff.

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