Last week, some of you may have read reports in the press about two senior midwives working in Glasgow's Southern General Hospital, who lost their case in the Court of Session. Committed Catholics, Mary Teresa Doogan and Concepta Wood shared the job of labour ward co-coordinator at the hospital. Medical terminations took place in the ward under the Abortion Act 1967, but after the closure of the Queen Mother's hospital, and some rejigging between institutions, the number of abortions taking place in Doogan and Wood's ward increased. This caused them concern - so much concern in fact that having exhausted internal grievance procedures at Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Board, they took their case before Lady Smith in Edinburgh. As you might expect given the controversy of the topic, the Abortion Act 1967 includes a "conscientious objection" clause, which reads:
4 Conscientious objection to participation in treatment.
(1) Subject to subsection (2) of this section, no person shall be under any duty, whether by contract or by any statutory or other legal requirement, to participate in any treatment authorised by this Act to which he has a conscientious objection ...
(2) Nothing in subsection (1) of this section shall affect any duty to participate in treatment which is necessary to save the life or to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of a pregnant woman.
Doogan and Wood did not participate in abortion procedures themselves, but objected that their supervisory role as ward coordinators meant that there were basically facilitating abortions, if not administering drugs which brought them about. As such, they argued that they should be entitled conscientiously to object to all aspects of their job which in some sense related to or facilitated medical terminations. For those interested in a more detailed legal reading, I've a guest post up on the UK Human Rights blog, summarising the case. In brief, however, Lady Smith dismissed their petition for judicial review, rejecting what she called a "horse shoe nail" approach to causation, holding that the right of conscientious objection only extended to more or less direct "participation in treatment" - to abortion procedures themselves - and not to the sort of work Doogan and Wood object to, that of its background facilitation, in organisational and management roles.
But what to make of it on a wider, ethical level? The philosopher Hugh McLachlan composed a short thought or two for the Scotsman after the case was decided last week, essentially arguing that:
"... when we adopt particular roles and accept particular jobs, we waive particular moral and legal rights and acquire duties. If we voluntarily accept the benefits of a situation, we ought to accept the attendant burdens. It might well be unreasonable to compel a midwife to be directly involved in an abortion."
By contrast, Scottish Catholic blogger Cum Lazaro detects a significant absence from much of our public discourse on this sort of topic:
"What is lacking, both in MacLachlan's analysis and in the sort of combox debates I've regularly found myself involved in on similar cases is any sense of why conscientious objection is a good thing. In the absence of such reflection, the argument appears very simple. On the one hand, you have the general duties of a job and the inconvenience caused to others by conscientious objection. On the other hand, you have the hurt feelings of a couple of deluded believers in Sky Fairies. Not much of a contest.
Now putting aside, from the Catholic perspective, that you are asking two women to partake in murder, why should society, even when it disagrees with a particular moral position, and despite all the arguments against it, facilitate conscientious objection? The general answer is given in John Stuart Mill's On Liberty: that society has an interest in the encouragement of individuality and conscientious reflection among its members."
For myself, I can't quite decide what to make of it all. Clearly, the idea of a ward coordinator and supervisor refusing to coordinate or supervise an aspect of their ward's activity is bound to generate frustration and inconvenience. Yet convenience isn't king, a fact recognised by the pervasive notion of making "reasonable adjustments" to accommodate the convictions or disabilities of your employees (embraced more and less enthusiastically by employers). As Cum Lazaro emphasises, universalising the question - what if every labour ward coordinator refused to supervise abortion processes in any way? - doesn't strike me as an immediately helpful way of posing the problem either, obfuscating rather than illuminating the real predicament before us, of religious minorities working in a medical field of both life and death, with strongly-held convictions about the immorality of abortion.
What do you think?