TWO Roman Catholic nurses have won the right not to work in an abortion clinic, in a case that has been reported as relying on a new interpretation of the Religion and Belief provisions in the Equality Act 2010.
The pair were employed for ordinary nursing duties, but were then allocated to work once a week at an abortion clinic in their hospital. The clinic carries out the EMA (Early Medical Abortion) process, which uses drugs rather than surgery to terminate a pregnancy.
The nurses objected, but were told by management that they had no choice in the matter. They approached the hospital’s RC chaplain, who in turn contacted the Thomas More Legal Centre (TMLC), a charity that provides free legal advice for cases involving religious freedom.
Its director, Neil Addison, said: “EMA has been held by the High Court to be an abortion procedure under the Abortion Act 1967, and, as such, the nurses had an absolute right to refuse to participate under the conscientious-objection provisions.”
In a letter to the hospital, he said that any attempt to pressure them into participating in the abortion clinic, or to suggest that their refusal would affect their career, would be illegal under the Equality Act.
Writing in his blog, Mr Addison noted that this interpretation of the Equality Act had never, to his knowledge, been argued before. “Since the courts have accepted that the philosophical belief in global warming is protected under equality legislation, I could see no reason why belief that human life begins at conception should not be equally protected,” he said.
The hospital had excused the nurses from administering the drugs, but had told them that they would have to continue working in the clinic. TMLC had made it clear, Mr Addison said, that this proposal was unacceptable, because the nurses would still be morally complicit in abortion. The hospital had “eventually backed down”, and allocated the nurses to other duties.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission criticised courts last month for applying the law too narrowly and setting the bar too high for Christians (News, 15 July).
It announced this week that it has had permission to intervene in four cases at the European Court of Human Rights, and is seeking public views for its submissions. The cases are those of Nadia Eweida, the BA employee dismissed for refusing to cover up her cross at work; Shirley Chaplin, a nurse banned for the same reason; Lillian Ladele, a London registrar disciplined for asking to be excused from registering same-sex couples as civil partners; and Gary McFarlane, a relationship counsellor who refused to give sex-therapy advice to gay couples.
The announcement makes clear that the intervention is not in support of any of the parties in the litigation. It distinguishes between the Eweida and Chaplin cases, where the Commission might seek to modify the court decision, and those of Ladele and McFarlane, where it says that the domestic courts came to the right decision. The public has until 5 September to respond.
Simon Sarmiento, of Anglicans Online, who has been following the progress of the Equality Act, commented on Tuesday: “Many observers will welcome the EHRC’s suggestion that the rights of Eweida and Chaplin, under Article 9(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights, to manifest their Christian beliefs, were not adequately considered. . .
“However, the EHRC’s view that the domestic courts came to the correct conclusions in the cases of Ladele and McFarlane will be very unwelcome to those who have campaigned so vigorously.”