Supreme Court: Lady Hale DPSC, Lords Wilson, Reed, Hugh and Hodge JJSC, 17 December 2014

The appellant, the Greater Glasgow Health Board (GGHB), brought an appeal against two labour ward coordinators at the Southern General Hospital who had claimed conscientious objection under 5.4(i) of the Abortion Act 1967 to delegating to, supervising or supporting staff in the provision of care to patients undergoing abortions.

The midwives were practising Roman Catholics who object to taking part in the process of treating patients undergoing abortions because of their religious beliefs.

Their roles as labour ward coordinators meant that they provided clinical leadership and operational management in respect of the midwifery provided within the labour ward and obstetric theatre but there were not required to have any direct involvement in the actual termination procedure. An initial complaint by means of a formal grievance procedure was rejected by the Board, following which they appealed to the Outer House, whereby the Lord Ordinary, having considered the interpretation of the words “participate in any treatment” in S.4(1) of the Act, concluded that “treatment” in this context should be read as including activities which directly brought about termination. “Participate” denoted “taking part in” but did not cover all those involved in the chain of causation. Given that the midwives had no direct involvement in bringing about the termination they did not fall within the meaning of S.4(1), and so the appeal was rejected. The midwives then appealed to the Inner House whereby their right to conscientiously object under S.4(1) did cover the entitlement to refuse to delegate to, supervise or support staff in caring for patients undergoing terminations, throughout the termination process (unless required under S.4(2)).

The GGHB appealed successfully and applied to have that filing set aside by the Supreme Court. In Lady Hale’s judgment she stated that the right of conscientious objection conferred by S.4(1) of the Act only applied to those actually taking part in the medical treatment. The right did not extend to those performing ancillary, administrative and managerial tasks which could be associated with the process of treatment of a patient in terminating a pregnancy. Therefore the midwives could not rely on S.4(1) to conscientiously object to delegating to supervising or supporting staff providing care to patients undergoing terminations.