31 Mar, 16 | by BMJ
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). more…