National 5 final - abortion
Published on: Mar 3, 2016
Transcripts - National 5 final - abortion
The National 5
As a midwife for more than a decade I helped deliver many hundreds of healthy babies. I
also helped deliver some who were stillborn some with unexpected abnormalities; and
others who needed resuscitated.
I cared for women who had become seriously ill as a result of their pregnancy and labour.
And I cared for women who were having terminations for foetal abnormality. The great
gamut and complexity of women’s lives is played out every day and every shift on the
In every situation, I did the best job I could, being ‘with woman’ (the literal meaning of
midwife). I strove to provide the most appropriate, supportive and non-judgmental care to
every woman whatever their circumstances.
Like other midwives, I tried to avoid making any insensitive remarks that might become
scorched on the memory of a woman at a time she is digging deep for the strength, courage
and stoicism she was unaware she had. I’m proud of that. But it was what was expected of
I no longer work as a midwife but the years I did gave me a richness of experience that
will stay with me forever.
I am now studying the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice after graduating in Law.
These two worlds collided last week in the UK Supreme Court. Two Scottish midwives were
told that their conscientious objection to abortion would be respected – as it always has
been – allowing them to opt out of ‘hands on’ care. But the court also ruled that the scope
of their objection could not extend to opting out of organising the Labour Ward or
managing, supervising and supporting staff. This was always the interpretation of
conscientious objection I trained under and worked under.
Thankfully, Lady Hale - the only woman of twelve Justices of the Supreme Court – had the
good sense to uphold this interpretation. If she hadn’t, chaos would’ve ensued in maternity
services across the country and women would have faced further barriers to services.
I respect peoples’ right to hold personal views on abortion. But I struggle to understand
those who would pick and choose who to provide care to, based on their own religious or
moral philosophy. And who don’t mind sending a message to thousands of women that they
are not worthy of their care.
It is with some trepidation that I use this column to write about abortion. In Northern
Ireland, the Marie Stopes clinic has been targeted by anti-abortion extremists, leading to
one individual being served with a restraining order to protect women, staff and the
Director of the clinic, Dawn Purvis.
Anyone speaking out can find themselves inundated by an avalanche of postcards
organised by SPUC – the organisation that has funded the two midwives’ legal action. In the
USA, health professionals have been murdered.
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But that sense of trepidation is exactly why I do need to speak out. I am conscious of the
women who silently nurse their memories and live with decisions that were always about
being the least bad option for them, while siren voices proclaim their damnation.
For most of their careers at the Southern General Hospital, Mary Doogan and Concepta
Wood had managed to avoid being challenged over their interpretation of the conscientious
objection clause spelled out in the 1967 Abortion Act. The Southern General did not get
many referrals for termination for foetal abnormality, because of a postcode lottery that
meant it was more difficult to access termination services in the south of Glasgow than in
The Southern General was always supposed to have provided that service. This allowed
the two midwives to avoid being confronted with what would have otherwise been
standard practice on shift.
When the health board reorganised services to concentrate on the new site at the
Southern General, the Foetal Medicine Unit was transferred from Yorkhill. This increased
the likelihood that the midwives would need to co-ordinate the Labour Ward when women
needed terminations for foetal abnormality.
It’s important to be clear: the health board didn’t seek to narrow the scope of
conscientious objection – the two midwives sought to expand it. Contrary to the distorted
messages spun by the anti-choice PR machine – they were not being ‘forced to take part in
terminations’. And neither the Royal College of Midwives nor any other trade union
For me the right to choose is fundamentally tied to gender equality. As soon as the foetus
is given ‘equal’ status to women, the message is reinforced that women are inferior to men
– with no control over their bodies, their fertility or their destiny.
The consequences are often tragic. In 2012 Savita Halappanavar died in a Galway hospital
after being refused a termination that would have saved her life, on the grounds that 17-
week the week foetus she was carrying still had a heartbeat.
Right now, another young woman in Ireland, who has been pronounced clinically dead, is
being kept alive against the wishes of her family because is 17 weeks pregnant. She has
become, in the words of Guardian journalist Emer O’Toole, a ‘cadaveric incubator’.
When the right to abortion is restricted, the end game is increased maternal mortality. It is
widely recognised, for example, that after Nepal legalised abortion in 2002, the maternal
mortality rate dropped substantially.
Many anti-choice activists glibly assert that women ‘have other options’. In my experience
that simplistic view runs into a brick wall in the real world. And such people are left
impotent when their friend, living her real life, looks to them for support.
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I do respect the consciences of the two midwives. So does the law. But their conscience is
no more important than mine or any other woman’s. It offends my conscience that any
woman should be made to feel unwelcome in any medical facility because its staff seek to
impose their conscience on the organisation and provision of services.
The Supreme Court performed a high wire balancing act. And got the balance right.