Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Unconscientious objection

Women’s access to healthcare should not be jeopardised by conscientious objection, writes Estelle Hart

On the face of it the second reading of Nuala O’Loan’s conscientious objection (medical activities) bill which passed last week in the House of Lords was yet another debate about religious freedom, again casting the state as an arbitrator between the secular and the religious. This was certainly the impression given by O’Loan, who in an article for the House magazine, wrote about ensuring that those with certain ‘moral beliefs’ do not suffer exclusion from roles across the medical profession. A noble intervention on paper perhaps, but the Northern Irish peer’s desire for individual freedoms does not include extending the existing legislation on abortion access to cover her fellow citizens.

In 2014 the supreme court rejected a case brought by two Catholic midwives who challenged whether NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (GGC) could require them to delegate, supervise and support staff who were involved in carrying out abortions. The court ruled that the right to conscientious objection did not extend to their work, something this bill challenges.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service and others believe that the introduction of this bill would see people, mainly women, denied medical treatment and seriously impact the level of care they receive by extending the level of objection that staff can raise to the refusal to supervise other staff members involved in abortion services.

For many the use of the language of freedom and human rights to defend a bill that could take away good quality healthcare from women is simply perverse, but this is an all too common occurrence.

This illiberal march of religious liberty is narrative across western politics – from Belfast bakeries to evangelicals empowered by the monstrosity in the White House – who seek to deny the most basic services to anyone who would look out of place at a Trump rally. On the other side of the coin, secularism is being used to cloak racism across Europe, from the headscarf ban to banning halal meat in the name of animal welfare in the country of foie gras.

The language we have used for years to fight for rights is being twisted and used against us to entrench a legislative framework that still allows opt outs from performing certain medical treatments. Combined with an incredibly restrictive Abortion Act, it allows those in power to cast themselves as the oppressed.

The temptation to class this new attack on the right to choose  solely as another battle in the culture war obscures a larger and far more unpalatable truth about human rights in the UK. We are still debating whether women are entitled to them.

That the most basic of rights, the right to control what happens to your own body, is still considered a matter of public debate when it comes to 50 per cent of the population should terrify us. Yet we have come to accept it as part and parcel of the back and forth of political debate. Normalising it through language by discussing so-called conscience votes. Focusing discussion of abortion on the procedure itself not the woman who has it, as if when a woman is denied an abortion the story is over. A denied abortion is a forced pregnancy.

Despite the new found prevalence of discussions of the patriarchy on the comment pages, we still seem to be hamstrung when it comes to acknowledging that patriarchy means that women are treated as second class citizens who do not enjoy full rights under the law.

Should this bill reach the Commons I have every faith that the vast majority of Labour members of parliament will vote against it, but if the leadership of the party want to make a truly radical move that vote should be whipped. The only conscientious objection here should be to a society that still puts women’s humanity up for debate.


Estelle Hart is a Labour party member and former NUS Women’s Officer. She tweets @EstelleHart


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Estelle Hart

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