Conscientious objection by nurses and midwives

Nurses and midwives must at all times keep to the principles contained within The Code: Professional standards of practice and behaviour of nurses and midwives (2015) (the Code). The Code states that nurses and midwives who have a conscientious objection must tell colleagues, their manager and the person receiving care that they have a conscientious objection to a particular procedure. They must arrange for a suitably qualified colleague to take over responsibility for that person’s care.

Nurses and midwives may lawfully have conscientious objections in two areas only:

Article 4(1) of the Abortion Act 1967 (Scotland, England and Wales)
This provision allows nurses and midwives to refuse to participate in the process of treatment which results in the termination of a pregnancy because they have a conscientious objection, except where it is necessary to save the life or prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of a pregnant woman.

Article 38 of the Human and Fertilisation and Embryology Act (1990)
This provision allows nurses and midwives the right to refuse to participate in technological procedures to achieve conception and pregnancy because they have a conscientious objection.

The Supreme Court decision in Greater Glasgow Health Board (Appellant) v Doogan and another (Respondents) (Scotland) [2014] UKSC 68 provides additional information on the meaning of participation in any treatment.

For further information and advice on this subject, nurses and midwives should contact their union or employer.