By Dr Mary Neal, senior lecturer in law at Strathclyde University

FREEDOM of conscience is an important fundamental freedom recognised in international treaties but current protection for conscientious objection by health professionals in UK domestic law is inadequate.

Some professionals have statutory ‘protection’ that is so narrow. This was exposed by the UK Supreme Court’s judgment in the Glasgow midwives’ case. The court held that ‘hands off’ involvement in terminations was not covered by the statutory conscience right in the Abortion Act 1967, so that individuals had no right to refuse to enable and support the process in indirect ways.

The core purpose of any conscience provision is to protect individuals from having to share in moral responsibility for something they consider to be seriously wrong. Since the current law leaves some of those who would share in responsibility unprotected, it fails to fulfil this core purpose.

Moreover, the nature of abortion provision is changing. Most abortions nowadays involve women taking two medicines, mifepristone and misoprostol, usually two days apart in a clinical setting. The Scottish Government recently said that women would be permitted to take misoprostol at home. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has called for the UK to follow suit. There are already calls in Scotland for both doses of medication to be taken at home. In future, therefore, GPs and community pharmacists may have a far greater role in the abortion process, yet whether they have any statutory rights under the current law is (at best) doubtful. There is some provision for conscientious objection in GPs’ contracts and in professional guidance, but neither of these is an acceptable substitute for full legal protection.

The bill currently in the Lords would solve these problems in England and Wales by explicitly protecting all health professionals from any involvement in a limited number of practices which raise tricky life-and-death issues.

Dr Mary Neal is a senior lecturer in law at Strathclyde University.