Conscientious objection by nurses, midwives and nursing associates

Nurses, midwives and nursing associates must at all times keep to the principles contained within the Code.

Paragraph 4.4 of the Code states that nurses, midwives and nursing associates 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. 

Paragraph 20.7 of the Code requires nurses, midwives and nursing associates to make sure they do not express their personal beliefs (including political, religious or moral beliefs) to people in an inappropriate way. This expression may be in any format including though the use of social media. Paragraph 20.10 of the Code states that nurses, midwives and nursing associates must use all forms of spoken, written and digital communication (including social media and networking sites) responsibly, respecting the right to privacy of others at all times. For further information on this, please see our social media guidance.

There is a currently statutory right of conscientious objection for nurses, midwives and nursing associates in two areas:  

Section 4(1) of the Abortion Act 1967 (Scotland, England and Wales)
This provision allows nurses, midwives and nursing associates in Scotland, England and Wales 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.

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.

The UK Government has provided guidance for healthcare professionals in Northern Ireland in terms of their responsibilities to their patients in light of the statutory changes which came into force on 22 October 2019. For more information on the law framing termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland, please see the guidance on GOV.UK.

Section 38 of the Human and Fertilisation and Embryology Act (1990)
This provision allows nurses, midwives and nursing associates the right to refuse to participate in technological procedures to achieve conception and pregnancy because they have a conscientious objection. This applies to healthcare professionals working in the UK.

The Conscientious Objection (Medical Activities) Bill entered its Committee Stage at the House of Lords in March 2018. Following the 2017-2019 session of Parliament prorogation this Bill will make no further progress.

Further information

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