Would doctors and nurses be required to provide abortions under the new law?

No. Under the proposed new law, as under the current law, medical professionals would enjoy a right of conscientious objection. Except in emergencies, they would be entitled to refuse to participate in an abortion. However, they would be required to refer the patient to another practitioner who can provide the care she needs.


The current law

Under s. 17 of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013, doctors, nurses and midwives cannot be required to carry out a termination of pregnancy, or to assist in carrying it out. This is commonly called a right of conscientious objection. However, they must make arrangements for the transfer of the affected woman’s care, to ensure that she can terminate the pregnancy if she is legally entitled to do so. In other words, a doctor’s assertion of conscientious objection cannot be used to block a woman’s access to abortion.

In an emergency (where a woman’s life is at immediate risk) a doctor, nurse or midwife cannot refuse to carry out a termination or refuse to assist in carrying it out.

The legislation does not provide for ‘institutional’ conscientious objection. In other words, a hospital cannot ‘opt out’ of abortion care on behalf of its whole staff.

The constitutional right to freedom of conscience is protected under Article 44.2.1 of the Constitution. However, it is not an absolute right – this is why doctors can be legally obliged to refer the woman to another practitioner.

Proposed new law

The right to conscientious objection already protected under the current law would be transferred into the new law. Doctors, nurses and midwives could not be required to carry out a termination of pregnancy, or to assist in carrying it out. However, they would be obliged make arrangements for the transfer of the affected woman’s care, to ensure that she could terminate the pregnancy if legally entitled to do so.

In emergencies, a doctor, nurse or midwife could not refuse to carry out a termination or refuse to assist in carrying it out. Emergencies would be defined as cases where a woman’s life was at immediate risk, or her health was at risk of serious harm.

As with the existing law, the proposed legislation does not provide for ‘institutional’ conscientious objection. In other words, a hospital could not ‘opt out’ of abortion care on behalf of its whole staff.

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