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Conscience rights bill for medics passes second reading

26 January 2018


Baroness O'Loan said lack of conscience rights is putting people off joining some areas of the medical profession. 

There is a pressing need for statutory conscience rights which actually protect those who need protection

A bill seeking to protect the conscience rights of all medical professionals has received its second reading today in the House of Lords.

Baroness O'Loan introduced the Conscientious Objection (Medical Activities) Bill, which seeks to clarify the law to ensure that medical professionals are not discriminated against because of conscientious objection to practices that end human life.

The bill refers specifically to participation in abortion (including indirect participation), withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment, and any activity under the provisions of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act.

Pro-lifers pushed out of medicine

Baroness O'Loan argued that it is becoming increasingly difficult for many doctors, nurses, midwives, pharmacists, and other medical professionals to work in some areas of healthcare without being pressured to compromise their beliefs. Many young doctors, she said, feel that they simply cannot pursue a career in obstetrics and gynaecology, because they believe it will be impossible to advance their careers if they object to participating in abortion. 

Spurred by Scottish midwives case

Although the 1967 Abortion Act allows for conscientious objection, a 2016 inquiry found that in practice, some doctors and nurses face discrimination in the workplace due to their refusal to participate in practices that end a human life. The conscience rights of midwives were also undermined by the 2014 Supreme Court judgment against Scottish midwives Mary Doogan and Connie Wood, which held that the conscience provision in the Abortion Act 1967 did not cover aspects of their employment.

Mary Doogan said of the bill: "I am very glad to see that there is finally Parliamentary action taking place to restore the conscience rights of those who work tirelessly day in and day out to serve and care for others. As medical professionals, we owe patients not only our efforts but also our best moral judgement, and this Bill would allow us once again to practise with the greatest integrity. I fully support this important legislation and commend it to Parliament and the wider public."

Change urgently needed

Dr. Mary Neal, leading conscientious objection expert, and senior lecturer at Strathclyde University, has supported the bill, saying: "There is a pressing need for statutory conscience rights which actually protect those who need protection. The current law fails to do this, so this Bill is a necessary and timely step."

Widespread support

In a long and at times fraught debate, many peers from across the political spectrum, and holding differing views on life issues, supported the bill. Lord Mackay of Clashfern, a former Supreme Court Judge, and an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said that in correspondence with Doctors for Choice, he was told that the health service relies on people doing what they believe to be wrong - a position he rejected. Any obligation to provide services, he said, was on the NHS, not the individual. Baroness Eaton spoke passionately about how important conscience is in maintaining a person's moral integrity and sense of self. 

But some opposition to conscience rights

13 peers spoke in support of the motion, and 10 in opposition. Several peers mentioned being briefed by BPAS (who tweeted in opposition to the bill), Dignity in Dying, and Doctors for Choice. Among those who opposed the bill were Baroness Barker, spokeswoman for the Liberal Democrats, who called it "thoroughly disingenuous" and Baroness Thornton, who said it "flies in the face of Labour Party policies." The spokeswoman for the Government, Baroness Chisholm, said that as is usual in matters of conscience, the Government took a neutral position on the bill. 

Act in support

According to the conventional practice of the House of Lords, no vote was taken, and the bill will now proceed to the Committee stage. The Free Conscience campaign, which has been launched today to support the Bill, is calling on the public to visit their website (www.freeconscience.org.uk) where they can write to their MP, asking them to support the Bill.

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