An elderly midwife was forced out of her job because she refused to oversee abortions. Her case went to Supreme Court and London who ruled against her after a six year battle according to a report:
Mary Doogan sees herself like the driver of the getaway car in an armed robbery.
‘Would the police say that because he wasn’t actually in the bank, brandishing the gun, he isn’t guilty? Of course, they wouldn’t.’
This retired midwife, demurely dressed in a coral cardigan and smart court shoes, is the least likely of criminals, and it is sad that she carries even a hint of guilt about her ‘crime’.
After all, it was committed only in her own eyes (and God’s, she would say) and was a matter of conscience.
In the course of her duties in an NHS hospital, Mary, a devout Catholic, supervised colleagues as they participated in abortions. Although never hands-on herself, she admits she always felt implicated.
‘It’s why I later took the stance I did,’ she says, referring to the court case that ultimately cost her job as a labour ward co-ordinator at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow.
‘I don’t believe any midwife should be put in that position. It goes against why I went into midwifery in the first place.
‘My role was to bring life into the world. My patients were the woman and the baby. I have always felt a professional duty to both.
‘The thing that I could never get my head around was how you had to watch the words you used,’ she adds.
‘You’d never say ‘baby’ while with a woman who had chosen a termination. You’d talk about her ‘pregnancy’ or her ‘labour’.
‘With the next patient, though, who was in for a check-up, it would be all about the baby. It drove some of the girls mad, even the ones who had no objections to abortion.’
Pointedly, Mary doesn’t use the word ‘foetus’ once during our interview.
It was in 2014, after a gruelling six-year battle that had taken Mary, now 63, and a fellow midwife, Connie Wood, all the way to the Supreme Court in London that they finally lost their case.
The judgment effectively decreed that while midwives can opt out of ‘frontline’ abortion work, those in senior positions — like Mary and Connie — still have to supervise.
The ruling overturned an earlier decision, in an Edinburgh court, which supported the women’s claim that they were ‘conscientious objectors’.
As the law now stood, they could be disciplined for refusing to take part. So, having delivered some 5,000 babies over three decades in a job she adored, Mary felt she had no choice but to take early retirement.
Now she is telling her story because the issue is back in the political frame, with campaigners pushing for a change in the law to protect health professionals who, as a matter of conscience, do not want to be involved in abortions.
Given the power of the pro-choice lobby, she and other supporters of the bill — including Lord Alton and Lord Mackay, the former Lord Chancellor — fear that it has a slim chance of success unless public support can be galvanised.
‘It’s not only about midwives,’ says Mary of her fight. ‘The issue of conscientious objection in the NHS will become even more important with things like end-of-life care. We need to tackle it now.’
That Mary is a woman who lives by her beliefs is clear from the moment you enter her neat home on a quiet cul-de-sac in Glasgow.
She’s at pains to point out that her anti-abortion stance isn’t a Catholic quirk, though.
‘What about the Jewish people who don’t agree with it? What about atheists? It is not about religion. It’s about conscience.’
Warm, funny and worldly, Mary started her career delivering babies, often in slum conditions, all over Glasgow.
In the Eighties she worked for five years in a hospital in Saudi Arabia, and she has volunteered with the nuns of Mother Teresa’s order in India.
She has never married, although had life gone in a different direction, she would have liked a family of her own.
‘People have said to me ‘you should have been a nun, Mary’ but I’ve had boyfriends. It just never happened that I found someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. But you won’t find a bigger romantic than me. Mills & Boon. I love all that.’
She never wanted to be anything other than a midwife: ‘It’s a vocation, not a job,’ she says firmly.
Her efforts to distance herself professionally from abortions throughout her career — supervising staff when she had to but never taking an active role — had largely been successful and was accepted by colleagues and managers.
‘Other staff would volunteer to oversee them for me. They respected my feelings.
Then, in 2008, a restructuring in the hospital led to more abortions being carried out in the labour ward (previously they had been split between the gynaecology ward and the labour ward, depending on the stage of pregnancy), and Mary asked her managers for clarification on her position legally.
She had always understood that she was protected by a ‘conscience clause’ in the Abortion Act of 1967 which gave her the right not to be involved in a termination at any level.
She wanted to be sure, she told managers, and to formalise her arrangement in everyone’s interest.
‘It was becoming more difficult,’ she says. ‘The squeeze on resources meant fewer staff, so more pressure.
‘When the buzzer goes, you don’t know what is coming in. At one point I transferred to a Parentcraft position (teaching new mothers how to care for their babies) to try to avoid the termination issue.
‘On the second day I was asked to help out in theatre on a gynaecology ward.
‘The last three procedures on the list were terminations.
‘I just went out of the room — they only had to have me on hand, I wasn’t directly required — but that’s an impossible situation to be in.’
It was a growing cause of anxiety for her.
‘Even in a supervisory role, ultimately that patient is your responsibility. And if there are more inexperienced staff — as there are these days — then you may be required to step in.
‘I would never leave a woman unattended if she needed help. But I don’t think I should have been put in that position, though, and I was.’
At first, her managers seemed a bit baffled by her request, then the lawyers got involved.
‘When the managers came back and said that we had to supervise, no exemptions, I was floored — absolutely stunned,’ Mary says.
She says she was warned that she would face disciplinary action if she didn’t comply and participate in abortions when needed.
More lawyers were consulted, culminating in the Edinburgh court case where three judges found in Mary and her colleague Connie Wood’s favour.
When the decision was overturned in the Supreme Court two years later, both women were devastated.
‘I think I was numb’, says Mary. ‘I so believed we had the law on our side. When I heard the ruling, I couldn’t speak at all. I was so devastated and drained I came home and took to my bed.’
(The NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Authority yesterday said it adheres to The Nursing And Midwifery Council’s code on professional standards, and that GMC and RCOG recommendations are also respected.)
For Mary there was also the realisation her career was over.
‘I had no choice. I couldn’t go back to work in that environment, knowing I would have to do things that conflicted with my conscience.’
In fact, she hadn’t worked since 2010 because of the acute stress brought on by the legal wrangles.
She developed a debilitating condition called angioedema, which causes hives and a painful swelling of the skin.
‘It’s stress related. It makes everything swell up. My throat felt as if it was closed tight. I was on steroids. So painful. It was dreadful.’
Mary has now carved a new life in voluntary work. She counsels women who have had abortions they regret, while neighbours know they can always call on her for help with their babies.
She continues to take an interest in her profession but finds herself at odds with its hierarchy.
In 2016, Professor Cathy Warwick, then chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives, declared that abortion should be ‘part’ of the job of the modern midwife.
The ‘rights and wrongs’ of abortion should not be a consideration, Professor Warwick said, and backed a bid to axe any time limit on them.
‘Shameful,’ says Mary. ‘It goes against everything we stand for.’
She is keen to stress that ‘the women I cared for would never ever have known my views on abortion.
‘I would never have judged them on their own choices either. I’ve got people close to me who went down that road and I’d go out of my way to support them — the person, not the action,’ she says. Was it worth the sacrifice, I wonder?
‘Yes. I still believe I did the right thing. And the fight isn’t over yet. I don’t think any midwife should be forced into the position where they have to choose between their conscience and their career.’
What a tragedy it is that this compassionate and experienced woman’s determination to uphold her principles led to the NHS losing her when it is currently suffering a 3,500 shortfall in midwife numbers.
Does she feel any guilt about quitting? ‘I would never have chosen this way to end my career,’ she admits. ‘But how can you go against your conscience?
‘There is a saying that no pillow is more comfortable to sleep on at night than a clear conscience. I still believe I did the right thing.’ (source)