Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: Baroness O'Loan's Lords' Bill is matter of life and death for anyone working in health service

Right of conscientious objection may not pass into law, but it should make us stop and think, says Alban Maginness

Baroness Nuala O'Loan is an extraordinary individual, who has made and continues to make a very significant contribution to public life in Northern Ireland.

As a lecturer in law at the University of Ulster in 1977 she was a victim of a terrorist bomb explosion aimed at killing former Lord Chief Justice Lord McDermott.

Several years later, in 1999, just before the establishment of the PSNI, she became the Police Ombudsman. Her role was crucial to building confidence in the fledgling police service. In 2009 she was elevated to the House of Lords, where she sits as a crossbencher.

In January of this year Baroness O'Loan's Conscientious Objection (Medical Activities) Bill 2018 passed its second reading in the House of Lords and is now going through its committee stage. This Bill was introduced by her in response to the decision in 2014 by the Supreme Court in the Scottish midwives case.

In that case two long-serving midwives, Mary Doogan and Connie Wood, worked as ward co-ordinators in the South General Glasgow Hospital. Both were Catholics who had religious and moral objections to having any involvement at all in the process of abortion.

They were able to avoid such involvement until a reorganisation in maternity services in Glasgow increased the number of abortions to be carried out in the labour ward. At that point the two midwives asked their employers for a reassurance that their conscientious objection to abortion would be respected and accommodated.

Ironically, it was the Abortion Act 1967 (section 4) that introduced the statutory right to conscientious objection.

At the time of introduction of the Abortion Act it was put into the legislation to protect medical practitioners in the fields of obstetrics and gynaecology from being forced to carry out abortions.

As result of all of this a serious dispute ensued between the midwives and hospital management. The real issue boiled down to the midwives' conscientious objection to being involved in delegating, supervising or supporting staff to participate in and provide care to patients throughout the termination process.

The matter went to law and the Scottish Court of Session, the highest court in Scotland, decided in their favour.

The Scottish judges decided that they were entitled to the protection afforded by the Abortion Act.

But the hospital then appealed to the UK Supreme Court, which overturned the decision of the Scottish court.

The Supreme Court looked at this case as a matter of statutory interpretation. The court was of the view that the words "participate in" should be narrowly interpreted and that "participate" meant taking part in a "hands-on" capacity.

The judges said that it was unlikely that, in enacting the conscience clause, Parliament had in mind the administrative and ancillary tasks that may be associated with providing abortion.

This result meant that conscientious objection was restricted merely to those directly involved in a "hands-on" capacity. O'Loan's Bill, therefore, is an attempt to remedy that decision by the Supreme Court.

It should be kept in mind that the Supreme Court took pains to say that it was simply interpreting what section 4 meant.

It refused to express any wider view on the substantive issue of conscientious objection.

Clearly, therefore, it is open for Parliament to change the law to make certain that conscientious objection is available to a wider range of medical practitioners other than those who have a hands-on role in abortion. And, of course, O'Loan's timely Bill is not just confined to those expressing conscientious objection about abortion, but other issues including euthanasia and assisted suicide, or the withdrawal of hydration or nutrition from an acutely ill patient.

While, on a good day, the Bill might just pass through the Lords, sadly it is improbable that it would be passed by the House of Commons, dominated as it is by a pro-abortion majority, who fear conscientious objection interfering with the provision of abortion in Britain.

That fear is ill-founded, as the National Health Service carries out only 60,000 abortions per year as opposed to the 140,000 carried out by private abortion clinics like Marie Stopes.

There are huge challenges ahead for medical practitioners over conscientious objection, not just on the issue of abortion but also in the near future on euthanasia and assisted suicide and other life and death issues that may emerge.

Whatever your view may be on abortion, or other life and death issues, it is crucial in a democratic society that the conscientious objection of those involved in the medical treatment of any kind be protected and firmly upheld.

While O'Loan's Bill might not become law soon, it serves to highlight this important issue for us all.

Belfast Telegraph

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