Nurses Cannot be Good Catholics

Guest Post by John Olusegun Adenitire

It seems that if you are a nurse you cannot be a good Catholic.  Or, better: if you want to work as a nurse then you might have to give up some of your religious beliefs.  A relatively recent decision of the UK Supreme Court, the highest court in the country, seems to suggest so.  In a legal decision that made it into the general press (see here), the Supreme Court decided that two Catholic midwives could not refuse to undertake administrative and supervisory tasks connected to the provision of abortions.

To be sure, no one asked the nurses to directly assist in the provision of abortions.  The Abortion Act 1967 says that “No person shall be under any duty … to participate in any treatment authorised by this Act to which he has a conscientious objection.”  The Nurses argued that this provision of the Act should be understood widely.  Not only should they be allowed to refuse to directly assist in abortion services: they should also be entitled to refuse to undertake managerial and supervisory tasks if those were linked to abortion services.  The nurses’ employer was not impressed; neither was the Supreme Court which ruled that the possibility to conscientiously object only related to a ‘hands-on’ capacity in the provision of abortion services.

In a recent paper in the JME (available here) I have argued, albeit only indirectly, that this decision is only half-correct.  Nurses and other medical professionals have a human right to object to the provision of a wide range of services which they deem incompatible with their conscience.  I say that the decision of the Supreme Court is only half-correct because the Court explicitly avoided investigating the possibility of the nurses’ human right to conscientious objection.  Under the Human Rights Act, individuals have a right to freedom of conscience and religion.  That right may, in appropriate circumstances, entail the right for nurses to object to being involved in administrative and supervisory duties connected with abortion services.  If you ask me how the Supreme Court avoided having to consider the nurses’ human right to freedom of conscience and religion I couldn’t tell you.  I bet neither could any of the Law Dons at Oxford.

I realise that by appealing to human rights I am not necessarily making the nurses’ case any more deserving of sympathy that it already is(n’t).  The Human Rights Act is not a very popular piece of legislation. The tabloid newspaper The Sun hates it: see here.  (If you read The Sun other than for the comedy effect of the paper, then we probably can’t be friends anyway.)  David Cameron’s party is thinking of repealing the Human Rights Act: see here. (If you like David Cameron’s party… we probably should not talk about politics.)  But despite the lack of popularity of the Human Rights Act, it confers legal rights that you have a right to enjoy.  And you should be able to enjoy those rights even if people think that you are a bigoted conservative Catholic nurse who should be fired on the spot for refusing to do her job.  You should be able to enjoy the rights conferred by the Human Rights Act even if The Sun or David Cameron hate the Act.  That is the whole point of legal rights.

In my JME paper I do not spend much time criticising the Supreme Court for not doing its job properly.  I criticise instead the British Medical Association’s policy on the right for doctors to conscientiously object to providing medical services.  I argue that the policy document is inadequate because it does not properly consider the rights of doctors under the Human Rights Act.  I could have equally criticised the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s policy on conscientious objection for the same reason.  My intention was to show that the law on conscientious objection is complex and is influenced heavily by human rights considerations.  If you have to give advice to doctors or nurses on their right to conscientious objection you have to get the law (including human rights law) right.  My view is that neither the British Medical Association nor the Nursery Council have got it right.  Fortunately, I think the General Medical Council has.

Let me conclude by saying that I don’t think nurses should refuse to provide legal abortions because the Catholic Church tells them not to.  I am not a Catholic and I don’t think anyone should be a Catholic.  But what I think people should or should not be is irrelevant when it comes to the matter of what they have a legal right to be.  Whether I like it or not, nurses have a human right to be good Catholics.

 

Read the full paper here.

 

  • JDale

    I think a headline of “Catholics Cannot be Good Nurses” would be more representative of these two midwives.

  • Adam Moliver

    The author concludes :”But what I think people should or should not be is irrelevant when it comes to the matter of what they have a legal right to be.”
    Well we must consider that women have a right not to be — pregnant (- some would say especially if subject to rape, emotional pressure etc.) and yet even in these circumstances we see around the world one person’s belief system trumping the woman’s right to choose.
    What a doctor or nurse does in private should not infringe the patient’s right to choose in this and other matters.

  • Sarah Smith

    “Under the Human Rights Act, individuals have a right to freedom of conscience and religion. That right may, in appropriate circumstances, entail the right for nurses to object to being involved in administrative and supervisory duties connected with abortion services.”

    But presumably you still have to choose your career according to how far it fits in with your beliefs, and not vice versa? For example, a buddhist could not become an abattoir worker but then refuse to participate in anything to do with killing animals.

    • Rossco Piquo Train

      I imagine the vast majority of medical professionals seek to treat illness, relieve suffering, save life etc, rather than kill/end life, so your analogy is absurdly weak.

      Note also the deprofessionalisation of abortion services as most medically trained clinicians avoid the work. It’s left to poorly trained paramedicals to do the dirty work, hence CQC finding basic care inadequate – eg poor practice in consenting, which is absolutely crucial.

      • Sarah Smith

        “I imagine the vast majority of medical professionals seek to treat illness, relieve suffering, save life etc, rather than kill/end life, so your analogy is absurdly weak.”

        it was not an analogy; it was an example of why I think human rights act could not apply to not doing parts of jobs that you have chosen to do. In fact because it would lead to absurdities like that.

        In fact though, the fact that you might seek to get a job as a Dr for those other reasons is irrelevant if you do so knowing the job also involves the other duties you dion’t want to do.

        Let’s say I join the army in a longstanding time of peace because I want to be of front line assistance in emergencies like floods etc, but then there is a war and suddenly the killing part of my job description comes to the fore. Does the fact I joined to help people and not to kill make a difference? Or the fact that maybe for 90% of the time the job entails helping people in emergencies? No, you sign up for a job with a job description which covers the whole role. So if you do not believe in killing in a war situation, even if you thought that situation would in fact be rare, you would not join the army.

        “Note also the deprofessionalisation of abortion services as most medically trained clinicians avoid the work. It’s left to poorly trained paramedicals to do the dirty work, hence CQC finding basic care inadequate – eg poor practice in consenting, which is absolutely crucial.”

        Well yes exactly: Patients are suffering because people sign up to do a job but then decide not to do all of it