A Northern Ireland-based peer is championing a bill which aims to protect the freedom of conscience for medical professionals.
The Conscientious Objection (Medical Activities) Bill is designed to grant protection to healthcare workers – including doctors, midwives, nurses, and pharmacists – who object on grounds of conscience to being asked to participate in end-of-life treatment.
In practice, this could see medics opting out of any involvement in abortion services.
Professionals could be excused from taking part in the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment, and could also refuse to participate in any aspect of IVF treatment.
The Private Member’s Bill, introduced by Baroness Nuala O’Loan, states that employers “must not discriminate against or victimise” an employee with a conscientious objection.
The Ballymena woman said the UK has a “long and proud history” of recognising conscientious objection.
“Conscientious objection was first provided for in the United Kingdom in 1757,” she told the News Letter.
“Looking back on the two world wars, tens of thousands of men were excused from military service on grounds of conscience.
“The principle is also provided for in Article 9 of the Human Rights Act, which states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”
Baroness O’Loan said one of the main catalysts for her bill stemmed from a landmark legal case involving midwives Mary Doogan and Connie Wood – both devout Catholics – who refused to supervise abortions.
“They had been able to assert this right of conscientious objection for their whole nursing careers, until an amalgamation of hospitals led to their being required to do this work,” she added.
“Ultimately they could not, in conscience, have any role in the provision of abortion.”
It was in 2014, after a gruelling six-year battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court in London, that the pair finally lost their case.
“Those experienced midwives were unable to continue with their duties,” she added.
“But they are not alone and I have heard many stories of young doctors and nurses contemplating their future.
“While they want to pursue a career in obstetrics or gynaecology, many feel they are unable to because they could not, in conscience, kill an unborn child.”
Baroness O’Loan said that, under the 1967 Abortion Act and the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, there is limited protection for medics who wish to conscientiously object.
“That is why I have introduced the bill,” Baroness O’Loan added.
“Its provisions seek to affirm as a matter of statute that no one shall be under any duty to participate in activities they believe involve the taking of human life, either in the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment or in any activity authorised by the 1967 or 1990 Acts.”
When asked if the bill could lead to the restricting of services for patients, Baroness O’Loan told the News Letter: “This is not about reducing access to abortions or to the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment.
“It is about making sure we have a healthy NHS which looks after all of its staff.
“It is abhorrent to suggest that the NHS can only function properly by forcing staff to participate in procedures they feel that, for reasons of conscience, they are unable to do.
“Also, I would point out that the duty to deliver these services is on the NHS, not the individual practitioner.”
Baroness O’Loan, who holds the belief that life begins at the moment of conception. said there are many reasons why people think it is wrong to take a human life.
She added: “Conscientious objection is a matter of liberty, equality and morality. That is why this is important and timely legislation.”
Who does the bill apply to?
The legislation, if passed, would apply to all medical professionals on the registers of the General Medical Council, the Nursing and Midwifery Council, the Health and Care Professions Council and the General Pharmaceutical Council in England and Wales.
It would not apply to Northern Ireland as it is a devolved matter.
The bill recently passed its second reading in the House of Lords and will now proceed to the committee stage.
It states that, in any legal proceedings, the burden of proof of conscientious objection shall rest on the person claiming to rely on it.
If passed, the bill would be known as the Conscientious Objection (Medical Activities) Act