Five justices at the Supreme Court in London allowed an appeal by a health authority in Scotland against a decision of the Court of Session in Edinburgh last year in the case of Mary Doogan and Connie Wood.
As conscientious objectors, the senior midwifery sisters have had no direct role in terminations, but they claim they should also be entitled to refuse to delegate, supervise and support staff involved in the procedures or providing care to patients during the process.
Court of Session judges ruled that the right of conscientious objection “extends not only to the actual medical or surgical termination but to the whole process of treatment given for that purpose”.
But the health board argued that conscientious objection is a right only to refuse to take part in activities that directly bring about the termination of a pregnancy.
The case centred on the scope of the right to conscientious objection under the Abortion Act 1967, which provides that “no person shall be under any duty... to participate in any treatment authorised by this act to which he has a conscientious objection’’.
The Royal College of Midwives and British Pregnancy Advisory Service had warned of the implications for services if the Court of Session decision was allowed to stand.
Last April’s appeal victory for the two women followed a ruling against them in 2012 in their action against NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde.
In the previous appeal ruling in favour of the women, the judges said: “In our view, the right of conscientious objection extends not only to the actual medical or surgical termination but to the whole process of treatment given for that purpose.”
After that decision, Ms Doogan and Ms Wood said the ruling affirmed the rights of all midwives to withdraw from a practice that would ”violate their conscience”.
The women were employed as labour ward co-ordinators at Southern General Hospital in Glasgow. At the time of the original ruling, Ms Doogan had been absent from work due to ill health since March 2010 and Ms Wood had been transferred to other work.
Both registered their conscientious objection to participation in pregnancy terminations years ago, under the Abortion Act, but became concerned when medical terminations were moved to the labour ward in 2007.
They said being called upon to supervise and support staff providing care to women having an abortion would amount to ”participation in treatment” and would breach their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.
In the original ruling against them, the judge, Lady Smith, found that the women were sufficiently removed from involvement in pregnancy terminations to afford them appropriate respect for their beliefs.
The “landmark’’ ruling was welcomed by the Royal College of Midwives and British Pregnancy Advisory Service.