R (o.t.a A and B) v. Department of Health  UKSC 41, 14 June 2017 – judgment here; previous post here.
Was it unlawful for the Secretary of State for Health, who had power to make provisions for the functioning of the National Health Service in England, to have failed to make a provision which would have enabled women who were citizens of the UK, but who were usually resident in Northern Ireland, to undergo a termination of pregnancy under the NHS in England free of charge?
No, said the Supreme Court (Lord Wilson, who gave the lead judgment, and Lords Reed and Hughes, but with Lord Kerr and Lady Hale dissenting).
Background law and facts
The law on abortion in Northern Ireland is governed by the Northern Ireland Assembly. Abortion is only lawful there if there is a threat of long term psychiatric or physical injury to the mother. As this is difficult to prove, a steady stream of women come from Northern Ireland to secure abortions, mostly from private clinics that charge a fee for the service as they are unable to obtain a termination free of charge under the English NHS. Continue reading
Photo credit: the Huffington Post
In the news
The UN human rights committee has found that restrictive abortion laws in Ireland had subjected a woman to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Laura Profumo considers the latest human rights headlines.
In the News
The High Court in Belfast today ruled that abortion legislation in Northern Ireland is in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHCR) brought the case to extend abortion to cases of serious foetal malformation, rape and incest.
The Abortion Act 1967 does not extend to Northern Ireland: abortion is only allowed there if a woman’s life is at risk, or if there is a permanent risk to her mental or physical health. In this judicial review, it was held that the grounds for abortion should be extended, though it is still to be determined whether new legislation will be required to give effect to the ruling.
Greater Glasgow Health Board v. Doogan and Wood  UKSC 68 – read judgment here.
The Supreme Court recently handed down its judgment in an interesting and potentially controversial case concerning the interpretation of the conscientious objection clause in the Abortion Act 1967. Overturning the Inner House of the Court of Session’s ruling, the Court held that two Catholic midwives could be required by their employer to delegate to, supervise and support other staff who were involved in carrying out abortion procedures, as part of their roles as Labour Ward Co-ordinators at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow.
We set out the background to the case and explained the earlier rulings and their ramifications on this blog here and here. The key question the Supreme Court had to grapple with the meaning of the words “to participate in any treatment authorised by this Act to which he has a conscientious objection” in section 4 of the 1967 Act.
Re SB (A patient; capacity to consent to termination)  EWHC 1417 (COP) 21 May 2013 – read judgment
Sidney Chawatama of 1 Crown Office Row represented the husband of the patient in this case. He has nothing to do with the writing of this post.
The patient in this case was a 37 year old highly intelligent graduate who worked in IT. For the past 8 years she presented with symptoms which were diagnosed as those of bi-polar disorder. She had been detained under compulsory or similar powers at various times in Italy, in France and here in England.
These proceedings were issued in the Court of Protection because the mother concerned was “very strongly” requesting a termination and giving her consent to it. The issue related to her capacity. Section 1(2) of the Mental Capacity Act 2005 is very clear and provides as follows: “A person must be assumed to have capacity unless it is established that he lacks capacity.” Accordingly, unless it is established, on a balance of probability, that the mother does not have capacity to make the decision that she undoubtedly has made, her autonomy as an adult to request and consent to the proposed abortion procedure is preserved. Continue reading
Doogan and Wood v. NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde Health Board  CSIH 36 – read judgment here and Alasdair Henderson’s commentary here
It is easy to become complacent about women’s reproductive rights in mainland Britain. Compared to our Irish neighbours, women here are able to access their chosen contraceptive, abortion and maternity services with relative ease. When Savita Halappanavar died after she was refused an abortion in Galway, commentators lamented a system where a woman could be told by healthcare staff that she couldn’t have an abortion because Ireland is a Catholic country. We imagined that such events could not happen here. A recent judgment of the Scottish Inner House of the Court of Session (the Scottish Court of Appeal) shakes that belief. Of most concern is that the court failed to engage with the human rights implications of its decision.
Our abortion law is found in the Abortion Act 1967. Section 1 makes abortion lawful only when it has been authorised by two doctors who attest that continuing the pregnancy poses a risk to a woman’s physical or mental health, or where the child would ‘suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped’. In effect, all abortions, save those for fetal abnormality, are performed on the basis that there is a threat to the woman’s physical or mental integrity as a result of pregnancy. Section 4 excuses a person from ‘participating in any treatment’ under the Act if they express a conscientious objection to abortion. As the Abortion Rights campaign points out, the law gives doctors control over women’s informed choices about their pregnancy that can lead to damaging delays in accessing abortion services.
Doogan and Wood v. NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde Health Board  CSIH 36 – read judgment here
The Inner House of the Court of Session (the Scottish civil court of appeal) ruled last week that two midwives from Glasgow could not be required to delegate to, supervise or support staff on their labour ward who were involved in abortions.
The ruling makes it clear that the conscientious objection provision in s.4 of the Abortion Act 1967 has very broad scope. This probably means that the General Medical Council (GMC), the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) will all need to change their guidance on the subject, since the existing versions take a much narrower view. This judgment affects England and Wales as well as Scotland (since the Act covers all three countries), but not Northern Ireland.
The facts of the case, and the original decision of Lady Smith in the Outer House of the Court of Session are covered in our previous blog post here.